UC Santa Barbara could help Big West regain some respect

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In the five years since Utah State left for the WAC and Pacific began its descent into mediocrity, the beleaguered Big West has desperately searched for a new program to assume the role of the conference's flagship basketball school.

UC Santa Barbara hasn't separated from its peers yet, but don't be surprised if the Gauchos finally take that step.

They won both the regular season and conference tournament titles last year for the first time in school history. They return every significant player from that team this fall. And leading scorers Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally both will be seniors at the same time as a pair of promising transfers become eligible in fall 2011.

Seeking more playing time closer to home instead of backing up all-Mountain West point guard Dairese Gary, New Mexico transfer Nate Garth announced in May he'd attend UCSB. And 6-foot-7 Colorado transfer and fellow California native Keegan Hornbuckle followed suit last month, turning down the Pac-10's Arizona State and up-and-coming Loyola Marymount to join the Gauchos.

"I saw the success they're having now and wanted to add to it," Hornbuckle said Monday by phone. "They're obviously doing really well already and I think that adding me and Nate Garth is really going to help keep UC Santa Barbara among the top schools for the next few years."

It's a sure sign of how comatose Big West basketball has been the past five years that the conference's signature moment during that span still resulted in a loss. Fifteenth-seeded Cal State Northridge led John Calipari's high-octane Memphis team into the final minutes in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament, falling only because of reserve guard Roburt Sallie's heroic 35-point performance.

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The Big West certainly won't draw any comparisons to its heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s anytime soon, but a handful of potential impact transfers this spring provide hope for the future. In addition to Hornbuckle and Garth at UCSB, Pacific landed former top-100 recruit Andrew Bock of Creighton and Cal State Fullerton added Cal transfers D.J. Seeley and Omondi Amoke.

Hornbuckle has a chance to make the biggest impact of any of those players, though his 2.4 points per game as a freshman at Colorado won't show it. A midseason shoulder injury prevented Hornbuckle from suiting up for six games last year and ongoing pain limited the athletic wing's playing time during Big 12 play.

What persuaded Hornbuckle to leave Colorado was coach Jeff Bzdelik's surprise departure for Wake Forest in April. The Westlake Village, Calif. native already was interested in returning closer to home, but the departure of the coach who recruited him to Colorado solidified his decision.

"I think there was a better chance I would have stayed if it wasn't for the coaching change," said Hornbuckle, who also received scholarship offers to Arizona, Arizona State and Santa Clara in high school. "I really liked Coach Bzdelik. He was really the only coach from Colorado that recruited me. I really respected him as a coach and I completely agreed with his basketball philosophy. If he had stayed, it would have been a lot tougher choice.

Hornbuckle drew interest from some prominent East Coast and Midwest programs, but his desire to remain closer to home led him to only consider three schools that recruited him in high school: UCSB, Loyola Marymount and Arizona State. He liked everything about the Gauchos, from the campus, to his future teammates, to coach Bob Williams' friendly, laid-back approach off the court.

Although Hornbuckle won't be eligible to help UCSB defend the Big West title next year, he'll hone his long-range shooting and ball-handling in hopes of being prepared to become a starting wing during the 2011-12 season.

"I'm already a decent three-point shooter, but I'd like to become a knock-down shooter," Hornbuckle said. "If I can do that and improve my ball handling, I think that would be really big for me."