Tonight's Game: UC Santa Barbara vs. Utah State

Feb. 6, 2003

Tonight the UCSB men's basketball team looks to avenge an early season loss to the Aggies of Big West leading Utah State. Santa Barbara enters the game with an overall record of 9-10 and a league mark of 6-3. Utah State is 16-4 overall and is 7-2 in conference play. The game will be played at UCSB's Thunderdome and will be broadcast on KEYT 1250.

UCSB Probable Starting Lineup:
Whoever takes the court for the tip tonight is going to have to be prepared to play what is going to be the most important game thus far for the Gauchos during this 2002-2003 season. Most likely the solidified starters will be out there when the ball goes up, meaning, Jacoby Atako will be starting at the point. Atako has been playing better and better as the season carries on, raising his scoring average to 4.8 points per game. Additionally, Atako is averaging 3.5 assists per game and has accumulated a total of 276 over his career. This places him eighth on the Gauchos' all-time assists list. Joining Atako in the backcourt will be Branduinn Fullove and Nick Jones. Fullove has been hot lately scoring 22 points in a victory over Irvine and 20 in the loss to Long Beach State last week. He has increased his scoring average to 15.9 points per game, seventh in the Big West, and has brought in an average of 18 in the last five games. Jones came alive again versus Long Beach after being in a bit of a draught since league play began. Against the 49ers he scored 16 points, his highest total during Big West play. Over the last two games he has hit 4-of-8 three-pointers and has knocked down 75% of his free throws. On the blocks for the Gauchos will be Mark Hull and Casey Cook. Hull recently moved into third place all-time in scoring at UCSB after increasing his career total to 1,420 points. With 15 more he will propel himself into second place all-time. Hull is averaging 14.2 points per game and is second in rebounding grabbing 5.2 boards per contest. Cook has been the X-factor for the Gauchos since Big West play began. You just never know what you're going to get out of him. On a couple occasions he has played brilliantly, scoring 9.9 points per game over a four game period. However, during the last three games he has only contributed just 3.3 points per game and has hit 3 of 18 shots from the field.

Utah State Probable Starting Lineup:
Starting for the Aggies at the guard positions will be 6'1" senior Ronnie Ross and 5'10" junior Mark Brown. Ross is averaging 5.6 points per game and is dishing out 2.1 assists. He leads the team in three-point baskets with 21 but he is only shooting 38% from beyond the arc. Brown is scoring 9.4 points per game and leads the team in assists with 5.4 per contest. Those 5.4 assists place him second in the Big West and his 1.55 steals per game ranks him fifth. Over his last seven games he has recorded 39 assists to just 12 turnovers. At the forward spots for Utah State will Desmond Penigar and Toraino Johnson. Penigar is the only Aggie scoring in double figures as he averages 16 points per game. He is coming off his best road performance this season, against Idaho, in which he tallied 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting to go along with eight rebounds. Johnson is scoring 7.9 points per game and is second on the team in rebounding with 6.6 per game. At the center spot for the Aggies will be 6'8" sophomore Spencer Nelson. Nelson leads the team in rebounding with 7.5 boards per game and he is second in scoring with 9.5 points. Nelson is most valuable on the offensive glass where he leads the team with 56 offensive rebounds.

Scouting the Aggies:
It is clear to just about everyone in the league that if you want to hang with the Aggies you re going to have to slow down Desmond Penigar. The four time Big West Player of the Week is Utah State's go-to guy pretty much every time down the floor. Not only is the 6'7" forward silky smooth down low, he can shoot the three as well. He has connected on 17 of 46 bombs placing him third on the team in three-pointers. He is also quick on the defensive end picking up 20 steals this season. Aside from Penigar, Nelson and Brown seem to be the only other offensive weapons out of the Utah State starting five. Nelson is shooting 66% from the floor and has knocked down 60 of 86 free throw attempts. Brown is deadly from the line connecting on 88% of his freebies and he is second on the team in three-pointers made with 19. It looks like Utah probably won't burn Santa Barbara from outside, but they will get their shots and will get to the line. Interestingly, if the Aggies shoot better from either the free throw line or the three-point line then their opponents, they are 10-0. So look for Utah to get points from at least one of the two. One aspect of the Aggies that can be a factor late in the game is their bench play. Junior Cardell Butler has been playing very well coming off the bench scoring 8.1 points per game. He also leads the team with 11 dunks.

Scouting the Gauchos:
Before the Long Beach game, Santa Barbara had been on a defensive tear. Long Beach somehow found a way to hit more then 50% of their shots against the Gauchos, becoming just the third team to do so this season. Unfortunately, one of the other teams to do it was Utah State. Regardless, UCSB leads the Big West in field goal percentage defense at 41.6% overall and 40.9 in Big West play. Prior to the Long Beach game the Gauchos had been on a four game winning streak in which they had held opponents to a 37.4 field goal percentage on just 76 of 203 shots. The good news for Santa Barbara is that the defense gets even better at home. On the year, UCSB has held its opponents to 62.9 points per game overall and a stellar 54 per game in the Thunderdome. Aside from the tremendous shooting defense, the Gauchos have increased the defensive pressure by picking off more steals as league play progresses. Against Long Beach Santa Barbara gathered a season high 11 steals moving to 108 on the season. The Gauchos have snatched 5.7 steals per game on the season but in the last four games have averaged 8.4. This defensive improvement has helped spark UCSB in Big West play and has been a key factor in getting the Gauchos into second place. On the offensive end the trend has remained the same. Get the ball into the hands of Fullove, Hull or Jones and let them shoot. Santa Barbara will live and die by the three, especially the timely bombs that help to put teams out of the game. If Santa Barbara can get a couple of those to fall, first place will be in arms reach. UCSB's three-point percentage is five points higher then Utah State's so count on seeing the Gauchos bomb away from downtown. As for other offensive production, it would be big help if the offensive Casey Cook came to play tonight. The game will be completely different if he can chip in 10 points as well as grab a couple boards. Cecil Brown and Josh Davis will come off the bench to provide a little fire, something that they do very well. Brown will contribute on the offensive end, slashing and scoring as often as possible, and Davis will be a stopper on the defensive end.

Key Match-up:
The key match-up during tonight's game will be play of the Gaucho big men versus the play of the Aggie big men. Last game Utah State handled UCSB on the boards and cruised to an easy victory. The Gauchos were outrebounded 39-26 and Utah State scored 17 points off second chances. The Aggies enter the game with a +8 rebounding margin while Santa Barbara is at -.5. If UCSB wants to stay in this game the forwards will have to hit the boards hard and try and keep Nelson and Penigar out of the lane. Look for the focus to be on Casey Cook and Bryan Whitehead down low. But at the same time be ready to see Nick Jones flying through the key to attack rebounds with Fullove and Hull contributing as well.

What to look for:
Look for one of the best games this season in Big West play. Both teams know what is at stake here, first place, as well as confidence going into the Big West Tournament. Coach Williams never fails to have the Gauchos fired up for big games and don't be fooled, this is the biggest yet. If Santa Barbara wants to make a statement, the time is now, at home in the Thunderdome with the fans behind them. Defense will be a key and the ability of UCSB to knock down the big shots. The victor will be set to take the rest of the Big West by storm.