After being picked by both the media and the coaches to finish second in the Big West Conference, the UCSB men’s basketball team will be looking to put all the off-season hoopla behind and start playing basketball again.

The Gauchos open their 2001-02 season against local rival Westmont this Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. in the Thunderdome. Santa Barbara will be returning a remarkable amount of leadership and experience to this year’s squad, including six starters and nine players back on the roster.

UCSB owns a 39-5 mark over Westmont in the all-time series. Last season, Gaucho junior point guard B. J. Ward nailed an off-balance, clutch three-pointer to send the game against the Warriors into overtime. Santa Barbara prevailed 57-50 and escaped a 0-5 start behind Ward’s career-high 15 points.

“We’re not taking [Westmont] lightly,” Ward said. “We know they’re not a Division I school or the biggest, strongest team, but we can’t take them lightly. We have to have the same intensity as them, and it starts right now. It starts this Saturday.”

Since the preseason ended with a tough 78-75 loss against the EA Sports All-Stars ten days ago, the Gauchos have been concentrating on creating a tougher defensive mindset before the season gets underway.

“Defense. Defense. Our defensive aggressiveness is what we’ve been working on not just for Westmont, but for the season,” sophomore guard Nick Jones said. “If shots don’t go down, we always have our defense – we can always bring that to the court everyday.”

Santa Barbara is expected to start sophomore pointman Jacoby Atako, who became the first freshman to lead the team in assist with 83 since 1980-81. Sophomore Branduinn Fullove will join him in the backcourt. Fullove was second on the team with 12.2 points and 5.0 rebounds.

What may set the Gauchos apart from the rest of the Big West is the strength of their interior players. Senior center Adama Ndiaye returns from a redshirted 2000-01 season to join fellow senior center Mike Vukovich in the paint. Vukovich stepped in nicely for the Senegalese native to pour in 11.2 points a game and rip down a team-leading 5.7 boards.

Junior forward Mark Hull, last year’s leading scorer for UCSB at 13.9 points a game, completes the high-octane lineup.

Jones and Ward will be top options off the bench. After a preseason win against Korabel, UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said that Jones might be the team’s second or third leading scorer by the end of the season. Sophomore forward Casey Cook will also be a big part of the mix and is expected to participate in the season opener after missing the exhibition season.