Taking off is usually prettier than landing, the UCSB men’s basketball team would contend. Especially when the crash landing sidelines the top interior presence for the season.

Senior forward Bray Skultety, a driving presence in the Gauchos’ brilliant Big West Tournament coup in 2002, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Skultety, a walk-on two seasons ago and first-year scholarship player, will probably be out for the entire season. The forward cannot put any weight on the knee and said he will have surgery next week.

“This is just the worst time for this kind of injury to happen because it takes so much time to heal,” Skultety said. “It’s real doubtful that I’d come back this year but there’s always that chance.”

Skultety will probably be out four to six months. Since he stands at 6’6″, playing with a brace would limit his athleticism and might cause further damage to the ligaments.

Skultety, who never played high school ball at Orange Glen, was the strongest option to start at the five spot for Santa Barbara. The Valley Center native crept into the regular rotation in a 68-51 thrashing of Pepperdine on Dec. 8 of last year and quickly became the strongest rebounding presence on the floor.

Skultety infused selflessness, ferocity and intensity in 26 games by ripping down 4.4 RPG while shooting .625 from the floor. Skultety blocked three shots against this year’s #1 Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tourney and grabbed 10 rebounds on two occasions.

Skultety suffered the freak injury in a Uconn rebounding drill during a practice early in the week.

“I got tangled under the hoop with [junior forward Bryan Whitehead], and as I jumped I was pulled down and came down and fell backward,” Skultety said. “My leg twisted and my torso did too… I came down on my shin and the torso twisted and that’s what caused the tear.”

UCSB Assistant Coach Marty Wilson shook his head as Skultety gingerly walked out of Wilson’s office wearing a cumbersome knee brace and crutches.

“I was watching the whole thing happen… he and Bryan were both going for the ball,” Wilson said. “They went up and locked arms and Bray hit the ground before he expected to hit it. His knees buckled, and he went down with a yell… he tried to get up again to put weight on the knee and it was unbearable.”

The major blow for the defending conference champions, who finished 20-11 and 11-7 in the Big West last year, will force Head Coach Bob Williams and his staff to look at unproven, yet able players.

“This is a great opportunity for me but it’s definitely a challenge to step up rebounding and give everything that I’ve got,” freshman 6’10” forward Scott Rainey said.

Other forwards that need to step up include Whitehead, Rainey, sophomore Casey Cook and freshman Derek Wheeler.

“Whitehead has already stepped up the last three, four days of practice,” Wilson said.

Wilson also called out all players, from the point guards to the post players to step up in the absence of their emotional leader.

“It’s important not to phone-in the season,” Wilson said. “We have to make the best of it… No one’s depressed, and obviously we still have a reason to play.”