The 2001-02 UCSB women’s basketball team is out for national recognition – and a higher RPI rating. And its newly released schedule demonstrates as much.

The Gauchos will take on one of the toughest schedules in the country in the upcoming season, facing 11 teams that participated in postseason play a year ago. UCSB Head Coach Mark French said that there are three reasons for the Gauchos’ beefed-up schedule.

First, Santa Barbara hopes to raise its RPI rating (the ratings index used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee) in hopes of gaining a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. Second, the Gauchos hope that playing tougher competition will better prepare them for the NCAA’s. And third, UCSB is looking to gain some respect.

“We are constantly looking to play the best teams in the nation,” French said. “That way, when we see those type of teams in the NCAA Tournament, we’ll be better prepared.”

“A lot of [the schedule] has to do with respect,” senior forward Kayte Christensen added. “[UCSB] is not that well-known around the country, so our schedule is crucial in that way.”

After opening the season with two exhibition games, UCSB will begin its regular season schedule against 2001 WNIT participant Western Kentucky. The Gauchos will then play either Indiana or Stanford, both 2001 postseason teams, depending on the result of the WKU contest.

Santa Barbara then opens its home slate with a thriller at the Thunderdome as it faces off against NCAA Tourney participant Penn State. UCSB will be looking for some measure of revenge in that contest. The Nittany Lions downed Santa Barbara last season. The Gauchos then travel to Columbus, Ohio to face 2001 WNIT Champions Ohio State. From there, UCSB heads to Virginia to play the Cavaliers, who also played in the Big Dance one season ago.

Santa Barbara finally returns home Dec. 7 to face another 2001 NCAA Tournament team in Stephen F. Austin. The Gauchos then hit the road again for perhaps their sternest test of the season, taking on NCAA Tournament runner-up Purdue in Indianapolis on December 15.

The Boilermaker game carries added significance for sophomore forward Lisa Willett, who will be able to play in front of relatives.

“Personally, I’m very excited about the Purdue game,” Willett said. “It’s an awesome chance to play against a great team. Plus, I get to play in front of some family.”

UCSB comes home again Dec. 19 to host yet another 2001 NCAA Tourney participant in St. Mary’s. Finally, on Dec. 30 UCSB will square off against WNIT qualifier UNLV in Las Vegas.

The Gauchos’ Big West schedule opens Jan. 3 against Idaho and finishes conference play at conference newcomer Riverside on March 2. Mixed into UCSB’s Big West schedule will be two non-conference games, both against 2001 WNIT qualifiers. First up for Santa Barbara will be Arizona on Jan. 14, followed by a game with Oregon State on January 16.

The Gauchos will enter the 2001-02 season with an extremely young team, making the schedule that much more daunting. UCSB brought in five blue-chip recruits and has added two walk-on freshmen, bringing the total number of freshmen to seven, or exactly half of Santa Barbara’s entire team. But despite the seven newcomers, UCSB remains confident that it will be ready for this season’s foes.

“[Our youth] doesn’t bother me,” Willett said. “There are going to be some growing pains, but we need to get through those, stay together, and get some team unity as quickly as we can.”

In fact, the Gauchos believe that they can use their youth to their advantage, believing that other teams will underestimate them because of their freshman-heavy roster.

“Any team with seven freshman and seven returnees, other teams will look at us like ‘this should be cake,'” Christensen said. “I think a lot of teams are going to underestimate us. But we have a lot of faith in our freshmen. They play well, and they play well with the veterans.”

While some teams may take the Gauchos lightly this year, that definitely will not be the case with teams from the Big West. UCSB has dominated the Big West in recent years, going 71-4 over the last five seasons. However, the Gauchos have not enjoyed the same kind of success with their non-conference schedule. And that is exactly why this year’s squad is out to prove that it deserves to be mentioned as one of the top teams in the nation.

“Obviously, we’re a little young, a little inexperienced, but we’re really excited about the season,” junior guard Jess Hansen said. “But our freshmen are great players and great people. It’s going to be a great season.”