One subject that wasn't debated much at the Big West Conference media day gathering in November was the largely consensus pick of UC Santa Barbara as the league champion.
Few could argue with that choice. Santa Barbara had four starters returning from an 18-14 team that won the regular-season title. Three of them -- forward Branduinn Fullove and guards Nick Jones and Jacoby Atako -- played leading roles on the Gauchos' NCAA tournament team in 2001-02.
So why is Santa Barbara sitting precariously in fourth place with a 7-7 league record and a less-than-appealing 13-10 overall mark? For one, no player has replaced the leadership void of the graduated Mark Hull.
"This group has to have an attitude change for us to be any kind of a threat," Coach Bob Williams said after a recent loss to Pacific. "I really think the ball is in their court and they need to step up a notch. It does no good for me to be disgusted if they're not."
There are more issues. Jones and Atako have had poor senior seasons and lost their starting jobs. A 10-man rotation that was supposed to wear down opponents instead has led to chemistry questions. The free-throw shooting is the worst in the Big West.
Most of all, the Gauchos have been awful lately in the final minutes of tight games, blowing second-half leads in five of their league losses.
"Teams are doing to us what we're trying to do to them and we're not recognizing it," Fullove said. "We need to find a way to get seven or eight of us on the same page each game."
It didn't get any better Saturday against Cal State Northridge. The Gauchos turned the ball over three times in the final 2:44 and Northridge capped its 80-71 victory by scoring the final eight points.
The recent slide has thrown the Gauchos' seeding in the upcoming Big West tournament into the air and put into question whether they will be a dangerous team in Anaheim.
"The best thing about 18 to 24 year-old kids is they can gain confidence in a couple of games," Williams said.
Terrell Jones provided a spark for Northridge against the Gauchos with a career-high 13 points. Not bad for a walk-on who isn't in the team's media guide nor listed on its website.
Jones, a 6-foot-5 freshman guard, was accepted into the school solely on his academics but always kept hope of playing in college despite not starting most of his career at Carson High.
Former Matador Lionel Benjamin saw Jones play in intramural games on campus and told Northridge coaches to keep an eye on him during the team's annual tryouts last October. Jones showed up and eventually won a spot on the roster.
"I just wanted to get on the team," he said. "After that, I was going to work hard and fight to get in the games for a minute or two."
Jones has taken advantage of a Northridge roster shortened because of suspensions, scoring nine points in recent games against Utah State and Idaho.
"To be a walk-on freshman and play the way he's been playing is remarkable," guard Ian Boylan said. "Most freshmen come in with a lot of hype and don't even play like this."
Azusa Pacific ended Concordia-Irvine's 22-game winning streak in upsetting the defending NAIA champions, 94-88, Saturday night to pull into first place in the Golden State Athletic Conference. Azusa is 24-4 overall and 15-1 in conference while Concordia is 23-2 and 14-1.