Entering the 2005-06 season, the UC Santa Barbara women's basketball team finds itself in a familiar position, as well as an atypical one.
Familiar because the Gauchos will defend their Big West Conference regular season title for an incredible ninth straight year, making them the program all others in the league are gunning for once again.
On the flip side, UCSB's roster lacks the established star power it has featured for the better part of a decade, which has translated into seven Big West Player of the Year awards since 1997.
As the winningest head coach in conference history, Santa Barbara's Mark French has never been one to back down from a challenge, and sees parallels between his current Gaucho team and the ones he led just prior to the program's current run of nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
"We've been talking about a return to old-school Gaucho philosophies, in terms of effort and intensity and cohesiveness, things we absolutely had to do at higher level a number of years ago in order to succeed," he stated. "It's different - and in some way anxiety-provoking - but at the same time exciting because our players are confident they can rise to the occasion. I certainly think we have players who are capable of keeping the program's traditions and streaks alive."
Part of the uncertainty surrounding UCSB this season stems from the team's youth. Nine of the 12 players are underclassmen, and a majority of those who were with Santa Barbara in 2004-05 saw limited court time behind a group of savvy seniors. French emphasized that his highest expectations for the Gauchos will come in March, not as they play their challenging non-conference schedule.
"I think early in the season we'll try to focus on doing a few things really, really well. We as a coaching staff anticipate spending a greater percentage of time teaching during practice, but going about in a way that we'll still be competitive out on the court," French said. "The team is very aware that this is a process, and obviously the goal is to be the best team we can be come Big West Tournament time and - hopefully - postseason tournament time."
Below is a position-by-position look at the 2005-06 UCSB women's basketball team.
In the past two years, two of the three most prolific scorers in school history have moved onto professional careers, meaning points in the low-post will have to come from sources who have yet to etch their names in the Gaucho record books. A pair of players who have both experienced the high of helping UCSB reach the Big Dance - as well as the low of a major knee injury - are eager to become primetime performers this season. Offensively they have shown a knack for shooting the ball efficiently, while defensively they have benefited from guarding the likes of Lindsay Taylor and Kristen Mann in practice on a daily basis.
Santa Barbara's top returning scorer and rebounder from 2004-05 is senior post player Autumn Nichols, whose confidence appeared to increase exponentially with each passing game. After shaking off the rust from her redshirt season in 2003-04, the Bakersfield, Calif., native made opponents realize the UCSB offense wasn't a two-woman show featuring Mann and Mia Fisher. While starting each of the final 21 contests, Nichols averaged 9.9 points, 5.4 boards and 58.5% shooting, leaving Gaucho fans hungry for more.
"In the last third of last season, we were just starting to see Autumn Nichols we knew we were getting out of junior college. Every part of her game just kept getting better and better," French stated. "I think she's poised to have a great senior year, and is doing an excellent job as a team leader. Autumn has earned a lot of respect from her teammates because she's battled back from injury and come back strong, and has really turned into a prototypical Gaucho."
Nichols successfully rehabbed from a torn left medial collateral ligament, the same ailment that befell redshirt sophomore Jenna Green three games into last season. Santa Barbara not only lost its starting center, but also a player befitting of the title of superstar-in-the-making. As was the case with Nichols, it will take this former Big West All-Freshman Team member some time to get back into playing shape, but even as Green does she still figures to play an integral role in all aspects of the Gauchos' gameplan.
"We're very excited about Jenna being back and being healthy, and I'm sure she has that extra hunger after sitting out for a year. Jenna's going to have to be patient, but she has a great blend of size, strength and composure," French said. "I think Jenna is one of those players who will force people to double-team, and that's great for our offense. However if teams decide they're going to play behind Jenna Green, we'll be just fine with that too."
UCSB is not especially deep in the low post, meaning every player will need to play smart basketball, especially a pair of underclassmen who figure to log significant minutes off the bench. Fortunately one of the Gauchos' most cerebral athletes is sophomore Kat Suderman, who played her best basketball down the stretch of the 2004-05 campaign as she learned what it takes to compete at the Division I level. French feels the best is yet to come from this 6'4" native of nearby San Luis Obispo, Calif., one of the nation's most sought-after post players coming out of high school.
"Kat is one of those players who I believe can make a huge jump in terms of the impact she has on the team," he said. "Sometimes really intelligent players suffer to some degree when learning a new system, because they want to use their brains all the time. Now that Kat has a year under her belt, has gained a little confidence and won't have to think as much, that will benefit her in many different parts of her game."
French is enamored with Suderman's ability to shoot the ball from perimeter, a skill that also happens to be a strength of Shantel Thomas, one of the newest Gauchos. The Sacramento, Calif., native is so versatile that even at 6'2", she started at off-guard in 2004-05 for her high school team that advanced to the CIF state tournament. The UCSB coaching staff will try to exploit this mismatch Thomas provides them, while also molding her into a low-post threat as well.
"We're very excited about Shantel's potential to be one of those classic Gaucho `four' players. She's quick and athletic and runs well and has excellent shooting range," French said. "I think Shantel's biggest growth area will be in the low-post, since she didn't have an opportunity to post up very much in high school; that's very rare for a 6'2" kid. She's also physically suited to play our defense very well."
Another versatile Santa Barbara frontcourt player is sophomore Brittanie Taylor-James, who projects mainly at the "three"-spot but has the strength to step in at power forward should the aforementioned Gauchos find themselves in foul trouble. While she provided Santa Barbara with boundless energy as a rookie last season, her opportunities often came late in the second half of games, when defensive intensity tends to wane. Taylor-James' continued all-around development will be imperative as UCSB's youth movement takes shape in 2005-06.
"Brittanie was instant offense when she came off the bench last year, which is something we're going to need with players like Kristen and Mia gone. She's quick, she can score, she's a great offensive rebounder and she brings great enthusiasm to the court," French observed. "Hopefully Brittanie makes the kinds of strides we're all expecting of her defensively. If she does, it will be a key not only to her progression, but I think she may be one of those pivotal players who we need to step and play some quality minutes."
With all the talk of youth on the Gaucho roster, it's easy to forget that UCSB features a fifth-year senior who has been a part of the most successful run in program history. Fresh off her breakthrough 2004-05 campaign, Karena Bonds is not only expected to become an even bigger offensive threat as Santa Barbara's elder stateswoman, but also share leadership duties with the aforementioned Nichols. As has been the case in previous seasons, her hard-nosed defense will set the standard for all other Gauchos to emulate.
"Karena is one of the best defenders in the history of our program, and may be the best perimeter defenders we've ever had - she's that good, that athletic and that proud of her defense," French stated.
"I think Karena has made very progressive steps with her offensive skills, and this year we will see her step up and score a lot more, because she has to. Karena is a textbook case of biding ones time, and now is her time. I'm really excited about seeing how spectacular she can be offensively and defensively." Bonds is also arguably the Gauchos' top ball handlers, as evidenced by her +1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio a year ago. That skill will be invaluable as UCSB will likely turn over the reins at point guard to a trio of underclassmen.
The likely candidate to start at the "one" is sophomore Ana Onaindia, who saw her rookie campaign limited to just six games by a chronic lower abdominal injury. However it was abundantly clear during her truncated freshman season that this 5'5" native of Bakersfield, Calif., is lights-out from beyond the arc. She scored 27 of her 29 total points from three-point territory - connecting at a 42.9% clip - but seeing Onaindia develop into a stingy perimeter defender and astute passer would make French even happier.
"Ana is instant-offense, and has a chance to become a legendary shooter. The questions are can she stay healthy, and can she quickly step up her game defensively," he said. "She's somebody who can really help us in terms of getting back some of that offensive production we've lost, but she's going to have to become a great-hearted defender to play in our system."
One way UCSB expects to beat opponents this season is by out-running them. Freshman LaShay Fears fits perfectly with that strategy, and is already drawing comparisons to the speediest Gauchos of all-time. However making the jump from high school superstar to Division I point guard is one of the biggest transitions in all of sports, and will invariably take some time for this Palmdale, Calif., native.
"I think Shay might be the quickest player we've had since Lisa Crosskey [in the early 1990's]. We have great expectations for her in terms of immediately being a great defender, and we're going to be able to put lineups on the floor that are reminiscent of the 1999-2000 teams in terms of their ability to get up and down the court," French intimated. "Shay's a tremendous athlete, but that being said she's making a tremendous transition to being a freshman point guard, and it's hard to say how she'll adjust to that - there's a lot of responsibility and pressure, but really no way to protect her."
The newest Gaucho is also a point guard, who faces quite a learning curve herself after excelling in a small, suburban high school conference. Freshman walk-on Kim Smith was added to the UCSB roster in early October, providing the squad with even more speed as she received several scholarship offers as a Division I track and field prospect.
"Kim is quick and athletic and has a true point guard mentality - very talkative and energetic on the court," French stated. "She'll need to work on her ball-handling skills, and fortunately she has one of the best tutors around in [assistant coach] April McDivitt. I can see Kim contributing to this team before the season is through."
The UCSB player with the most experience as a "one" should actually see a bulk of her playing time at off-guard in 2005-06. With her knack for draining three-pointers and lightning-quick release, junior Erin O'Bryan is at her best while on the receiving end of passes. That being said, the Gilbert, Ariz., native is a true student of the game, and will likely do a bulk of the strategizing when the Gauchos are huddled on the court. "We've vacillated back and forth with Erin because she has that point guard mentality, yet her skills are really more off-guardish. I think it will really help her to settle into a more defined role, but still be able to tap into that leadership and her understanding of the game. Erin eats, sleeps and breathes basketball and really knows what's going on."
With O'Bryan and Onaindia raining threes, sophomore Jessica Wilson will be counted on to build on her promising rookie campaign and take on the role of Santa Barbara's primary penetrator, something Mia Fisher did so admirably the past four years. Wilson's slashing, acrobatic moves helped preserve UCSB's lead late in the Big West championship game, and showed why she was named to the conference's all-freshman team after coming on so strong late in the season.
"I think when Jessica got on the court and got settled in last year, we all saw what she is capable of; she's just an elite-level athlete," French stated. "She really has no weaknesses - she's quick, athletic, she penetrates well, has a nice stroke from outside and has a good sense for the game. She also has that intangible quality to do something spectacular at big moments in big games - I don't believe you can teach that."
Finally, freshman Whitney Warren will be counted on to shut down players similar to Wilson - the opposing team's top backcourt scoring threat. Having played on two CIF state championship teams as a prepster, she is no stranger to guarding exceptionally talented players. It will benefit Warren to focus on one area of her game as a rookie while her all-around skills develop with repetitions in practice and during competition.
"When Whitney was at our Elite Camp last summer and I saw her doing our speed-agility-quickness training, my initial thought was `wow, what a defender this kid is going to be'," French said. "Whitney likes to play defense, she's athletic, and when she's out on the court our overall team speed will just skyrocket. The growth opportunity for Whitney is on offense, and we're very confident we can help her with that. Fundamentally she's very sound offensively, and a lot of her development will come with confidence."