By Mark Patton - Senior Staff Writer - Santa Barbara News-Press
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -
UCSB's Jacoby Atako looks like he should be leading the choir in church, not a first-place team in the rough world of Division 1 basketball.
A cheery smile never seems to leave his cherubic face.
"Sometimes, he is too nice of a guy," said Gaucho coach Bob Williams.
But that didn't keep Williams from choosing Atako as his starting point guard three years ago, just nine games into his freshman season. And this nice guy hasn't finished last, either.
Atako's strong finish last year helped UCSB win the Big West Conference Tournament, and he led the team into a share of the league lead on Thursday with its stunning 70-54 win at UC Irvine.
The Gauchos, 9-9 overall, are tied with Utah State at 6-2 entering tonight's 7:35 game at Long Beach State.
"No one on our team has ever beaten Irvine at this place," he said Thursday, smiling as always after getting nine points with six assists and no turnovers. "This is the first time I've ever felt really good leaving here."
Atako knows all about his choir-boy reputation. He tried to do something about it last year by having a dragon tatooed on his shoulder.
"Maybe I can trick 'em with it," he said.
Atako is one of the quickest and smoothest players in the Big West. But Williams has had to preach to him repeatedly that the meek will never inherit the college basketball world.
"It takes a lot to get me worked up, riled up and mad," Atako conceded. "What he's trying to do is get me more aggressive and meaner out on the court, push guys around occasionally.
"Sometimes, when you're too nice, you can get in this timid mode. You have to grow out of that."
That happened during a physical slugfest at Long Beach's Pyramid last year. Atako became incensed with the 49ers' Travis Reed when he knocked UCSB's Adama Ndiaye to the floor.
"I kind of retaliated -- I ran over to it really fast, and the refs noticed it," said Atako.
One referee, in fact, sent Atako to the bench, although without assessing him a technical foul. Williams was incredulous.
"Are you kidding me?" he asked the official. "He's the sweetest guy on our team."
But things heated up even more when Atako returned to the floor. His duel with Long Beach point guard Michael Darrett had turned personal.
"We were exchanging words most of the game and ended up talking a lot," he pointed out. "The teams started getting into it, and it just escalated."
After Atako fell to the floor near the end of the loss, Darrett walked over him and dragged his foot across his head.
"Jacoby yanked at it," Williams recalled. "Words were exchanged, pushes were exchanged, and luckily it didn't develop into an all-out brawl."
Although UCSB lost that game, its dragon-tatooed point guard had found some fire. Atako's aggressive play helped the Gauchos begin a five-game winning streak the next week, and that took them all the way to the NCAA Tournament.
"I thought part of his emergence last year was that little scuffle at Long Beach and the attitude change," said Williams. "He's very much in that mode right now, too. On the floor, he's tough."
Williams says things to Atako that you wouldn't expect to hear from a coach, like "Don't play too under control."
"We don't want Jacoby out of control, but we want Jacoby pushing the envelope a little bit," he explained. "He's such a good athlete, and he's such an unselfish team guy, that I'm not worried about him taking too many shots. He knows what we mean by being more assertive."
He's done that lately, shooting just under 50 percent and averaging 5.0 assists during UCSB's four-game winning streak. His defense has also been crucial. He held Irvine's Mike Hood, one of the Big West's top 3-point shooters, to just one 3-ball and seven points in Thursday's game.
"He's pretty much the quickest guy on our team -- it's pretty close between he and B.J. (Ward)," said Williams. "He's a very good athlete, and he can get up. When he gets up around the rim, with his quickness, he can beat a lot of big guys to get the ball off the glass.
"And lately, he's been outstanding. He's really turned it up and taken the challenge. He took the challenge of guarding Hood, who's an outstanding player."
Atako even challenged his coach after the team returned from a 75-59 loss at Utah State three weeks ago.
"The thing we were disagreeing about was that he didn't think I was playing at the same level as last year," said Atako. "I thought I was."
Williams decided to show Atako what he meant while watching game film with him during an hour-long, one-on-one session.
"The film became more Jacoby educating me of the fact that he was playing the way he did last year," said Williams.
But then Williams challenged Atako right back: Play even better.
"What it changed was Jacoby became clear of the fact that we wanted him to assert himself more," he explained. "He needed to play differently than he did last year, that he was being too tentative in taking penetration, or taking a guy off the dribble to the rim, or creating a little bit more."
UCSB ran an inside-out offense last year through its big men, Ndiaye and Mike Vukovich, and both those players graduated last spring.
"This year, we're a different animal," said Williams.
And so is Atako. The result is a four-game winning streak.
"I really should be getting better, that's all he's asking me to do," he said. "Just get better, and take over the team a little more, and be more assertive. He's not asking for anything too demanding."
In a way, he's just preaching to the choir.