October 20, 2009

Gauchos trying to get the bugs out

Oct. 20, 2009

By MARK PATTON, NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

October 20, 2009 6:59 AM

Justin Joyner ran some extra sprints during the opening of UCSB's basketball practice last weekend.

He headed straight to the rest room with each one.

The guard who plays the 1 for the Gauchos must also deal with a little H1N1 these days. It's running through the team as breathtakingly as top-ranked North Carolina did 11 months earlier.

"We haven't had everybody all together yet because of the flu," said coach Bob Williams, who's held four workouts since Friday. "Guys come back, and then others go missing for a few days."

UCSB had planned to bring Joyner, a junior point guard, and senior guard James Powell to Friday's Blue-Green Media Day with Cal Poly, but both were looking a little too flu-green for the task.

Sophomores Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally took their places.

"J.J. showed up to practice, of course," Williams said of his gutty lead guard, "but he excused himself a half dozen times, if that gives you an idea."

Junior guard Jordan Weiner got the sickness ball rolling with a touch of the swine flu.

"It's just starting to run through the team now, and that's fine," Williams said. "It couldn't come at a better time, actually."

It's better than at the start of Big West Conference play, which is what happened to his 2008 team. The Gauchos, the heavy league favorites, wheezed and hacked their way to a 3-3 start.

They recovered in time to claim a share of the conference championship, winning nine of their last 10 Big West games.

Memories of that untimely epidemic gave Williams a sick idea.

"When Weiner came down with it," he said, "I told them, 'Why don't you guys go and have a swine flu party at Jordan's house? Everybody should just go get it and get it over with.'

"They weren't as keen on the idea as I was."

But the Gauchos still couldn't stay away from each other -- no ill-willpower, so to speak.

"They're around each other a lot, which is a really good thing," Williams said. "They've done a good job of that. In fact, we just had a meeting as a coaching staff about some team-building things that we should do in the next month, but we feel like it's a pretty close-knit group, anyway."

Johnson found that out after transferring over from Loyola Marymount, where he'd set freshman records for both scoring and rebounding.

"I'm just impressed with the work ethic of this team, and how much fun that we're having around each other," he said. "I really love that about these guys and it's going to make it so much easier for me to step in so I can contribute for them. I'm ready to go.

"Everything is in place, too. Each position, we're so deep. We don't know who's going to start. I might be the 13th man on the team, who knows?"

That would be a shock, considering that the powerfully built, 6-foot-5 guard was picked by several preview magazines to their preseason All-Big West teams.

It would also shock Nunnally, who had to battle him last year whenever Johnson played on the scout team.

"It was really tough guarding him in practice, he's so strong," he said. "He'd get me in the post when I first came in and just push me around, and so I just had to find ways to get tougher.

"I had to play him physical. I fouled him a lot, too, and he wouldn't call it. He's my brother, so he has to play through it."

They would scrap like brothers, too. Johnson, Joyner and San Diego State transfer Jon Pastorek all played on the scout team, and all three could start this year.

"We were just trying to whup the good team every day," Johnson said. "We took it as though, 'Man, we should be out there.'

"It'd be funny sometimes because they'd start bickering and stuff, and we'd talk back, 'Hey, man, don't let him talk to you like that.' We'd let them know that we were going to do whatever it took to get them motivated so we can start winning."

Williams spoke of high expectations during Friday's Blue-Green Media Day, and he wasn't backing away from them after the weekend workouts.

"Practices have been really good," he said. "A lot of our expectations are pretty right on in terms of the depth of the team. The top 11-12 guys are pretty comparable and interchangeable and versatile, and we feel pretty good about what special commitment they've made.

"It's manifested itself in practice. At this time, our optimism is very high."

As high as sophomore Greg Somogyi, who at 7-foot-3 is the tallest Gaucho in history. He also weighed in at 242 pounds the other day.

"I've seen a really big improvement in him, from where he started to now," Johnson said. "And man, he looks bigger than me now. I'm a pretty big guy, but he's passed me up.

"He's sexy, man. He likes it now when he looks into the mirror."

Healthy and sick, all at the same time.

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