Hornbuckle is sweet music to UCSB's ears

Keegan Hornbuckle (Photo by Tony Mastres)
Keegan Hornbuckle (Photo by Tony Mastres)

December 20, 2011 6:24 AM

Keegan Hornbuckle has felt like a Beatles song, replayed ad nauseum for nearly two years.

He became a Nowhere Man soon after arriving at UCSB, sitting in his Nowhere Land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.

Knee and back injuries kept the University of Colorado transfer in basketball limbo for a painfully long time.

"I think we counted 20 months without my being able to do any running or even shooting, so it's been tough," the 6-foot-7 sophomore said. "That's probably the longest I've gone without playing basketball since I was 1 or 2."

But Hornbuckle, who sat out the first five games of this year after having red-shirted last season, arrived in Somewhere Land on Friday when his 11 points gave the Gauchos the chance for an upset at the University of Washington.

"I think you're going to see him get better every game, and in mid-January you'll really see what he's capable of," UCSB coach Bob Williams said. "The kid's had a tough go of it, but you see him and he seems pretty good right now."

The toughest times for Hornbuckle came last year when he had to sit on the sidelines during practice, and then sit at home when the Gauchos departed on road trips.

He wound up circling wagons with roommate Nate Garth, a point-guard transfer from the University of New Mexico who had surgery of his own on his hip.

"Living with Nate really helped because we were both hurt at the same time," he said. "I wasn't really practicing so it was kind of hard for the team to include me in anything.

"Me and Nate would hang out a lot. When the team was on the road, we'd sit at home and watch the games on Live Stats and just talk about the games."

Hornbuckle had knee surgery last January and was finally cleared to play in September after the team returned from its preseason tour of Canada. His back ailment, however, flared up on the first official day of practice in October.

"I really didn't think too much of it, and the next day it was sore again," he said. "Then about two weeks later, it kept getting worse and worse.

"When that happened, I had thoughts in my head of, 'Am I ever going to be healthy? Is this going to be an ongoing thing for the rest of my life?'"

The doctors and physical therapists said no, and he eventually made short appearances during games on Nov. 30 against Nevada-Las Vegas and then last Tuesday at the University of San Diego.

"I told Keegan the other day, 'I don't know what I've got yet,'" Williams said. "I know what we recruited, but I haven't see Keegan healthy and in good shape and confident yet.

"Now he's starting to get into a little better shape, he'll start getting his confidence back, and he's going to be an impact player."

Hornbuckle's first real impact came while logging 17 minutes off the bench against the Huskies on Friday.

"What I loved about Keegan was how honest he was about getting tired," Williams said. "He was exhausted at half-time, and he told me, 'Maybe I could play short stints in the second half.'

"You come back like that, and your body dies in a hurry."

He was starting to feel it after taking a steal upcourt during the second half.

"Right when I stole it, I was thinking, 'I want to dunk this,'" Hornbuckle said. "And as soon as I took off, I had to make an air-time decision to lay it up. My legs were a little tired at that point."

He decided to transfer to UCSB, close to the Westlake home of his parents Mike and Donna Hornbuckle, after his coach at Colorado left for Wake Forest two years ago.

"I 'd been kind of feeling homesick the whole year, anyway," he said.

Hornbuckle's older brother, Matt, had already decided to transfer to nearby Westmont College, which is coach by their father's old friend, John Moore.

"I chose Santa Barbara because it was the closest place to home that was looking at me," Keegan Hornbuckle said. "When I came for my visit, I just felt like I fit in with everybody, and fit in with the style of play, and just with everything else."

Hornbuckle's versatility fit right into Williams' plans.

"I envision him as a 2-3-4 interchangeable," he said. "He's a good scoring option. I watched him go for 28 against the Atlantic Celtics (in AAU basketball) when they were a beast, three or four years ago, before his senior year.

"He's a good help defender. He sees rotation and he sees the next pass. He's really good moving without the ball, and he's a good passer. He has really good instincts for the game, too. We're all excited - the players and the coaches -to see Keegan as he gets healthier."

The four games of December have revived Hornbuckle's spirits.

"On these road trips, I get to know everybody a little bit more," he said, "and it's been fun so far."

Traveling from San Diego to Seattle, and then Berkeley to Provo, is taking him far from Nowhere Land.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com