Tonight's Game: UC Santa Barbara vs. Long Beach State

Feb. 26, 2003

Tonight the UCSB men's basketball team hosts the 49ers of Long Beach State in the second to last game this season in the Thunderdome. The Gauchos are coming off an ESPN Bracket Buster loss to Detroit but remain in striking distance of first place in the Big West Conference. With four league games left to play, UCSB (13-12 and 10-4) trails UC Irvine (17-7 and 11-4) by half a game on the season. Utah State follows closely behind at 10-5. Tip-off at the Thunderdome will be at 5:05 p.m. to accommodate Fox Sports television coverage and the game will also be broadcast on KEYT 1250.

UCSB Probable Starting Lineup:
Despite the fact that the Gauchos have come out extremely flat in their last two games, Coach Williams will likely go with the same starting five that he has had confidence in all season. This means that Jacoby Atako will start at the point where he is scoring five points per game for Santa Barbara. Atako is leading the team with 81 assists, more then 30 more than any other Gaucho, and he also has a team high 32 steals. More importantly, Atako has stepped up his defense during the second half of the season, playing an instrumental role in reducing opponents' field goal percentages and putting the clamps on some of the top guards in the conference. Alongside Atako in the backcourt will be Branduinn Fullove and Nick Jones. Fullove is UCSB's leading scorer at 15.2 points per game while shooting 47% from the floor. Although lately he has been cold from behind the three-point line, on the season Fullove has hit almost 40% of his threes. He has also managed to get himself to the free throw line quite frequently averaging 4.75 attempts per game and knocking down 80% of them. Jones has reemerged as a scoring threat during the last couple games for UCSB. After beginning the season with back-to-back 20-point games, his scoring decreased and now Jones ranks third on the team with 12.6 points per game. Of the starting five, Jones has the best shooting percentage at 49% and he has connected on an impressive 40% of his three-pointers. At the forward positions for the Gauchos will be Mark Hull and Casey Cook. Hull, the second leading scorer in school history, needs just 22 points to surpass the 1,500 point mark on his career. He leads the school in three-pointers made at 206 and his 13.5 career scoring average places him eighth all-time. On the season, Hull is averaging a second best 13.1 points per game and leads the team in rebounding by pulling down five boards per game. Cook, though unsteady at times, remains in the starting line-up because of his ability to rebound and chip in the occasional baby hook. Cook is averaging 5.4 points per game and is grabbing 3.4 rebounds, all while basically splitting time with Bryan Whitehead.

Long Beach State Probable Starting Lineup:
Trying to decipher the starting lineup for Long Beach State is like trying to talk a cat off a fish wagon, or trying to sell an Eskimo ice. Needless to say, it's quite hard. In 24 games the 49ers have gone with 15 different starting lineups. However, it appears that starting in the backcourt for the 49ers will be 6'2" freshman guard Jibril Hodges and 6'4" senior guard Tony Darden. Despite being just a freshman, Hodges has been playing exceptional basketball during the last month. In his last two games, he has scored 14 and 17 points and has dished out seven assists. On the season he is scoring 5.9 points per game and is getting 2.1 assists as well. Darden has been hot lately as well, being named last week's Big West Player of the Week. He received the honor after scoring 30 and 21 points in the two games going 11-for-18 from the three-point line. Those two games increased his scoring average to 15.1 points per game. The forwards for Long Beach will be Cody Pearston and Kevin Roberts. Pearston, a 6'3" sophomore, is averaging just less than four points per game for the 49ers and is pulling down 3.5 rebounds as well. Pearston is looking at just his seventh start of the season though he has appeared in every game for Long Beach State. Roberts is the second leading scorer on the team averaging 13 points per game. He has scored in double digits in the last 12 games and he is the team's leading rebounder, grabbing 6.2 rebounds per contest. At the center position for the 49ers will be 6'8" senior Vance Lawhorn. Lawhorn is averaging 9.4 points per game and is second on the team in rebounding at 4.5 boards per game. Importantly, during Big West play Lawhorn's scoring average has increased to 11.3 points per game as he is starting to carve out his spot around the basket.

Scouting the 49ers:
Do not let their 5-19 record fool you, Long Beach is a basketball team that is more than capable of upsetting the Gauchos. Just look at the game that was played down at the Pyramid. There are a few things that the 49ers do very well and there are a few players on the team that can get hot and completely take another team out of their game. The obvious place to look is to star Tony Darden. Darden is on fire right now after averaging 25 points per game last week. He is dead on from outside going 11-for-18 from the three-point line and he is shooting 84% from the free-throw line as well. Along with Darden, Kevin Roberts is playing well right now, bringing with him a 12 game double-digit scoring streak. Aside from the streaking 49er players, the team as a whole is doing some things very well as of now too. One of these areas is free throw shooting. During conference play, Long Beach has connected on 74% of its free throws ranking them second in the Big West. This is a big improvement from their mark of 64% last season. Additionally, the 49ers are doing a better job lately of limiting the number of turnovers on offense. Against Pacific, Long Beach had 14 assists as opposed to eight turnovers. Another aspect of the game against Pacific that should be noted is the ability of Long Beach to shoot the three. In last Saturday's game, the 49ers cashed in on nine three-pointers, the second best total of the season. This efficiency on offense has let to two 70+ point performances in the last two games for Long Beach.

Scouting the Gauchos:
It is officially time for the Gauchos to shake off the defeats and get into gear for the final stretch. The next four games have the ability to determine a great deal in terms of the Big West Tournament and potentially the NCAA Tournament. The first thing that the Gauchos need to do is start scoring again. After watching the scoring average drop from the 70s down to a consistent 66 points per game, Gaucho fans have now seen it dip to 65.2. Mark Hull and Branduinn Fullove need to get their shooting touches back soon if Santa Barbara wants to make a legitimate run. Nick Jones, Cecil Brown, and Josh Davis need to continue to provide offensive assistance as well. Jones appears to be catching fire again so that is good news for UCSB. Brown and Davis have been consistent off the bench as well, but all three need to bump the scoring averages up a bit to take some of the pressure off Hull and Fullove. The good news for Gaucho fans is Hull can only get better now. After struggling from the floor during the last couple games he is due to break out on his usual end of the season tear. On the defensive end of the floor, Santa Barbara needs to get back into the form they were in when they won 8-of-9 games. The "D" was phenomenal as opponents were forced to take poor shots and were pushed into turnovers and mistakes. Atako and company need to get the Gauchos back to that place where the defense was running on all cylinders. If the offense starts producing more and the defense can get back to its top form, UCSB will be poised to make the run necessary to land them a top spot in the Big West Tournament.

Key Match-up:
The key match-up in tonight's game will be Jacoby Atako versus Tony Darden. Darden, the reigning Big West Player of the Week, is the main scoring threat for the 49ers. He stands six-feet four-inches tall so he matches well with Atako, and like Willie Green last week, the two are comparable in quickness. We know Atako will get after it as best he can on defense, hoping to slow Darden after a weekend in which he scored a total of 51 points. Watch to see if Atako can slow him down, and if he can, Long Beach will have less firepower and will have to rely on some of its youngsters to handle the scoring.

What to look for:
Look for the Gauchos to begin their end of the season run towards the Big West Tournament. The two previous losses are out of our systems and as far as we know, Santa Barbara stands as good of a shot at receiving a top seed in the conference tournament as anybody. UCSB will return tonight with intensity, play defense like they know they can, and Mark Hull will reemerge as the senior leader that he has set himself up to be throughout his career here at UCSB. What better way to send himself off then with an invitation to a Dance in which he doesn't have to wear a tuxedo?