Nothing spells home-cooked lovin’ like Casey Cook heating up faster than an oven.

The sophomore forward has been a big reason for the recent surge UCSB men’s basketball team, winner of three of its last four games. The 6’8″ Sacramento native will fill the middle for the Gauchos against Cal Poly Saturday night at 7 in the Thunderdome.

Starting at the beginning of Big West play six games ago, Cook has nailed 16-20 shots from the floor for an astounding 80 percent, excluding a 0-4 blip against Fullerton. Cook logged a career-high, playing 28 minutes in each of UCSB’s victories against Northridge and Pacific last weekend.

“I think there’s a direct correlation to the fact that when Casey plays better, we as a team are playing better,” UCSB Assistant Coach David Campbell said.

Campbell, a 1980 Honorable Mention All-West Coast Conference post player at St. Mary’s, and UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams have worked with Cook on being more comfortable in the key. The coaches insist that Cook has taken the burden upon himself to play with a stronger awareness of opponents’ defensive movements than ever before. Cook has recently played with an urgency, intensity and confidence that was missing earlier in the season.

“He’s not a baby; he likes to mix it up. It’s just his nature to be quiet and reserved,” Campbell said. “At some point in time that has to change, and it has.”

Cook averages 6 ppg and 3.6 rpg while shooting 53.7 percent from the hardwood and has become a fixture in the Gauchos’ starting lineup, improving on his back to the basket moves.

“Early in the season he would get so anxious and excited when he got the ball down there that he tended to make moves before he realized what defense was doing,” Campbell said. “He’s catching the ball, reading the defense, taking his time and making a move accordingly. He’s not predetermining what he’s doing. To put it in a nutshell, he’s taking his time more whereas before he was rushing.”

Senior forward Bray Skultety, out for the 2002-03 season with a torn ACL in his left knee, helps inspire Cook to play with more passion.

“Bray’s a big influence,” Cook said after the 67-52 win over UOP on Saturday. “No one plays harder than Bray. He came in here as a walk-on and stepped in and probably would have started for us this year…. It’s good to have him encouraging me, showing me support, critiquing me. I hope he can look at my game and help me figure things out and help me improve in areas I need to improve on.”

After falling to CSUN 73-54 before a sold-out Mott Gym, Cal Poly (7-8, 3-3 in the Big West) will face UCSB (7-9, 4-2), both hurting for a conference win. Sophomore forward Varnie Dennis (17 ppg, 7.3 rpg) is the Mustangs’ lethal threat.

“Not only do you have to worry about [Dennis] on the block, if we’re not alert … he can shoot threes, too,” Campbell said. “When you get a guy that size with that kind of touch and athleticism, he’s going to be a major matchup problem for us.”

Defensively, Santa Barbara is up to the challenge.

“We’ve been defending pretty well and rebounding back to the level we need to be,” UCSB Assistant Coach Marty Wilson said.

With 16 more points, senior forward Mark Hull will become one of only four Gauchos ever with 1,400 points. The All-Big West forward has already passed seven players on the all-time scoring list this year and will be the best three-point marksman with six more trifectas.