Simply put, to be the best you’ve got to beat the best.

The #17 UCSB women’s basketball team ventures outside the confines of the Big West Conference for its much anticipated two-game national trip in preparation for the NCAA Tournament.

The Gauchos trek out to the Midwest tonight at 5 to tangle with the University of Illinois, a strong Big Ten program. As important as the game is for the Gauchos, it will be considered a warmup for the showdown in Baton Rouge, La. against #4 Louisiana State University on Saturday night.

“The main reason why we are taking this midseason trip is because we need to get back to a reality check,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “To beat these quality teams on their home courts is exactly what we are going to need to do in the [NCAA] Tournament.”

Santa Barbara specifically scheduled the majority of its Big West games prior to this road trip, in an attempt to progress as a club before practicing for the NCAA Tournament on the road against these perennial powerhouses. The Gauchos have played 11 conference matches and the other Big West teams will catch up this week.

“The coaches did a great job of scheduling this year,” junior center Lindsay Taylor said. “It will really help us prepare for big-time competition.”

The Gauchos (17-3 overall, 10-1 in the Big West) ride into Champaign, Ill. and Assembly Hall with six straight wins under their belts. Perhaps most importantly, Santa Barbara is as healthy as it would like to be at this point.

Taylor’s aching back has not acted up recently. In fact, the 6’8″ center stands just eight points shy of 1,000 in her career. The 2002 Big West Tournament MVP is on the verge of joining the illustrious club with current senior guard Jess Hansen who became just the 17th player to achieve the milestone in school history earlier in the season.

“I know that these teams have traditions of having good athletes that are quick. That’s what I expect,” said Taylor, who averages 14.6 ppg. “They know what it takes because they’ve been there. That’s what separates teams like that.”

The Illini, coached by Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Theresa Grentz, check in at sixth place in the Big Ten but are fresh off a 73-58 victory over Iowa at home on Feb. 9. Sophomore forward Angelina Williams leads Illinois in scoring with 15.1 ppg.

“[Illinois’] wings are really big and tall which might give us matchup problems in terms of height with [sophomore guard] Mia [Fisher] and Jess [Hansen],” French said. “They are very good at finding the mismatch in height and then posting up anywhere on the court.”

Despite a poor first-half showing against Idaho on Saturday on the road, the Gauchos are hitting on all cylinders after probably their most impressive homestand this season, beating Irvine, Long Beach State and Pacific.

In 2001-02 Santa Barbara relied on offense, scoring more than 80 points 13 times. This season, defense has landed the team in the top-25 in both national polls for the last eight weeks. UCSB owns the fifth-lowest field goal percentage defense with a .342 mark. The Gauchos have surrendered just 24.3 points per half this year overall, holding Big West opponents at just a measly 20.7 points per half.