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Make no mistake about it, the only goal for this young but exceptionally talented Wildcat team is playing for a national title.
In UCSB, the Wildcats get a team that specializes in defense first and three-point shooting second. The Gauchos finished ninth nationally by holding their opponents to 60.4 points per game. Arizona is a team that ranked fourth in the country with its 83 point per game average, so obviously something has to give come Thursday.
"I've coached against their coach before," Arizona assistant coach Rodney Tention said. "So I know a little bit about what they run. They run the floor a little bit and are pretty good in the halfcourt on offense and defense. We have better athletes, but we're not going to overlook them at all."
The Gauchos are pretty deep. Nine guys average over 11 minutes per game. The main players to worry about from UCSB, however, are 6-7 small forward Mark Hull (15 points, five rebounds per game), 6-4 shooting guard Branduinn Fullove (14 points on 43 percent shooting from long range) and 6-9 power forward Adama Ndiaye (11 points, eight rebounds per game), who is from Dakar, Senegal.
UC-Santa Barbara earned its berth to the Big Dance by beating Big West rivals UC-Irvine and Utah State on consecutive nights for the conference championship. Both of those teams are quality opponents, and when you throw in games against USC (Trojans won by 11 early in the year) and Pepperdine (UCSB by 17), it's easy to see that the Gauchos have more than held their own against good teams.
The key to beating the Gauchos is to turn the game into a horse race. Tention noted before that Arizona has better athletes and as obvious as that may sound, it's an honest assessment and a huge advantage for the Wildcat Young Guns. Opponents only shot 37.4 percent against UCSB this year, but most of those teams don't have a guy like Luke Walton to create open shots for teammates.
Stopping (or at least slowing) Walton and Jason Gardner will be priority Nos. 1 and 1A for UCSB. But even if it is successful in that area, the Wildcats simply have too many other weapons at their disposal for the Gauchos to stay close.
Key Match-up: Mark Hull vs. Luke Walton at the small forward spot. Luke has faced guys with far more versatility and athleticism than the 6-4 junior Gaucho, who leads the team in scoring. This match-up is strikingly similar to the one Walton faced against ASU's 6-3 Kenny Crandall. Walton is too tall and will post up Hull all night for easy scores and should be able to see over the top of him for easy assists to cutting teammates.