Junior forward Mark Hull drained six three-point buckets against Arizona in the first half of the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Senior forward Mark Hull leads the UCSB men’s basketball team to the Sweet Sixteen of the Big Dance for the first time ever in ’03 with another clutch game.

Could this be the in the books for the Gauchos 2002-2003? A Sweet Sixteen?

“We had a great season,” junior point guard B.J. Ward said. “Some people are still talking about us.”

After a 20-11 season, three All-Conference players, the first berth in the tourney in 12 years and first automatic bid in school history, the expectations and water cooler conversations rise for Head Coach Bob Williams and company.

“We’ll have the ability to go small, or big or even really small,” Williams said about the strengths of the 2003 squad. “We’re going to be really versatile. This is most likely the deepest team since I’ve been here.”

Senior centers Adama Ndiaye and Mike Vukovich are the only losses for Santa Barbara. Only Ndiaye ended up starting at the end of the season for the Gauchos, yet Vukovich played crucial minutes in the postseason, and both towers played well in the Big West Tourney in Anaheim and at the NCAA Tourney in Albuquerque, N.M. Post position minutes will be up for grabs.

“Bryan Whitehead and Bray Skultety will likely get minutes in the five spot for us, along with Scott Rainey,” Williams said.

Skultety, a senior who turned heads with his tenacious play in the paint as a walk-on, is the top returner, while Rainey redshirted the 2001-2002 season. Sophomore Casey Cook will also make his much-anticipated return to the court after being considered the most improved Gaucho at the beginning of the last season. A ligament injury in Cook’s right thumb during preseason that worsened once the year started derailed Cook’s season before it ever really got going. He played in only six games.

If the post position is up in the air now, that must translate into a hopping UCSB back court to help the big men.

“We’re going to be really competitive. We’re going to be a more guard-oriented team,” sophomore guard Nick Jones said. “The competitiveness will help us develop each other’s game in practice. It’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to playing against these guys.

“Other teams won’t want to play against us because they don’t know who will go off that night.”

The burst in back court help will come in the form of every guard returning, redshirt freshman Cecil Brown coming in and newcomer Josh Davis. The influx of the new guards will help challenge the older players who resembled the core of one of the strongest defense teams in terms of scheme in the country.

Sophomore point guards B.J. Ward and Jacoby Atako will return along with sophomore Branduinn Fullove and Jones.

Jones was voted Big West Tournament MVP and Fullove was named to the First Team All-Tournament team after the win over the Aggies. Atako started all 31 games for UCSB. Ward has improved every year and runs the point with ease.

Freshman walk-on Chrismen Oliver will return too. Williams described Oliver after clinching the Big West postseason title on March 9 as having “a little junk to his game.” Oliver chipped in a career-high nine points in the semifinal win over Irvine.

Perhaps the biggest and most important cog in the Gaucho machine will end up being Mark Hull. The First Team All-Big West player became only the second Gaucho ever to score 1,000 points in his junior campaign. The three-year starter drilled 8-11 threes against the then No. 6 Wildcats in the opening round of the NCAAs to finally perform considerably well in the spotlight after critics questioned his impact in big games.

Hull led the team in scoring at 15.2 ppg.

“I’m just going to keep working hard over the summer on my skills and how I can bring my overall game to a higher level,” Hull said.

Perhaps Arizona is just another stepping stone in the Gauchos promising future in the NCAA Tourney.

“The NCAAs are on everyone’s minds,” Hull said. “The goal for us will be to even make the Sweet Sixteen. That would be a really good goal and an achievable goal.”

Sweet Sixteen for the Gauchos?

Just ask Mark Hull how sweet his next March will be.