The UCSB men’s basketball team has high expectations for 2003-04.

Pegged to win the Big West in the conference preseason poll by both coaches and the media, the Gauchos are favored to repeat as regular season champions in a conference gaining in both talent and recognition.

Returning four starters and four reserves from a year ago, Santa Barbara adds into the mix some polished transfers and players back from injury and redshirt seasons.

“This team has a lot of experience,” senior guard Branduinn Fullove said. “We have five seniors and we can relate to some of these younger guys that we have.”

UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams, entering his sixth season at UCSB, scheduled a formidable preseason for the Gauchos. Santa Barbara tips off on Friday against the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and will make its home opener against Pepperdine on Dec. 3. The Gauchos will also host the University of San Diego, 2002-03 winner of the West Coast Conference and an NCAA Tournament selection, before hitting the road to tackle former UCSB assistant coach Ben Howland’s UCLA squad in Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 17. Santa Barbara faces defending NCAA Tournament runner-up Kansas in the Wolf Pack Classic in Reno, Nev. on Dec. 20.

“You like to test yourself,” Williams said. “You play Kansas, UCLA, USC [last season]; it’s a test. It shows you where you are in comparison to the rest of the teams out there.”

The Big West certainly won’t be a pushover either. Although the Gauchos won the regular season title last season, Cal Poly upset Santa Barbara in the semifinals of the Big West tournament. The Mustangs are set for another big season with senior forward Varnie Dennis leading the way. Utah State went on to give Kansas a run for its money in the first round of the 2002-03 NCAA Tournament, after getting the automatic bid to March Madness by winning the Big West Tournament championship over the Mustangs. Irvine, who returns senior seven-footer Adam Parada, should also be in the hunt for a bid to the Big Dance.

“With so many good teams, I would expect that the team that wins this conference will have at least four or five losses,” Irvine Head Coach Pat Douglass said.

Santa Barbara’s two most potent offensive weapons, Fullove and senior guard Nick Jones, will be out of the lineup to start the season. Fullove, who averaged nearly 15 points per game last season, injured his left foot in the Gauchos’ final exhibition game but is expected to return when the pain subsides. It is likely that Fullove will see action for UCSB this season, and his progress back from the injury might be one of the biggest factors to Santa Barbara’s early success. Jones will continue to practice but must sit out eight games after the NCAA fined him for playing in an unsanctioned summer league team. Both stars will likely return for Big West competition, hungry to lead Santa Barbara to a conference championship and back to the NCAA Tournament.

Despite losing four-year starter Mark Hull and popular reserve B. J. Ward to graduation, Santa Barbara believes it has the resources to play past the Big West Tournament. The Gauchos have plenty of offensive and defensive weapons to deploy in their arsenal this season.

Senior point guard Jacoby Atako has proven that he is capable of leading the Gauchos to the top of the Big West ranks. Atako, the 2002-03 Big West Defensive Player of the Year, will pace Santa Barbara by running the point and getting Santa Barbara’s weapons involved. Junior guard Chrismen Oliver has proven that he can provide reliable backup minutes and should have an increased role this year. After coming over from Oregon State University, sophomore guard Joe See is a versatile guard who can run the point or provide off-guard duties. See can flat-out shoot the lights out and will likely see many opportunities to hit the perimeter shot. Williams decided not to redshirt sophomore guard Josh Davis, who expected to see considerable minutes. Davis’ long arms let him excel offensively and frustrate opponents with a maddening defense. Sophomore guard Cecil Brown may step into the spotlight and shine at the two-guard for the Gauchos. Brown has shown is ability to provide range and spark UCSB by driving baseline and attacking the basket.

“Cecil Brown is primed to step up and take on a bigger role,” Williams said.

The major difference between this year’s squad and last year’s roster is the upgraded front court that will undoubtedly help Santa Barbara in the rebounding department. Senior post Bray Skultety returns as UCSB’s top rebounding candidate, and junior forward Casey Cook looks like he’s ready to expand his offensive game and provide some competent defensive intensity. Senior post Bryan Whitehead is exerting the same confidence that he exuded at the end of last season and appears to be an able-bodied defender to plug the middle. Freshman forward Glenn Turner, fresh off his redshirt season, plays well above the rip and is far and away the best blocker on the squad. The Gauchos also add sophomore forward Cameron Goettsche into the mix. Formerly a freshman for the University of Utah’s Rick Majerus before suffering an injury, Goettsche comes to Santa Barbara ready to dazzle with his tremendous leaping ability. Expect this first-year Gaucho to crash the glass and help Santa Barbara in transition with his remarkable athleticism.

“We lose Mark [Hull] this season, but our inside game is so much stronger. It’s a lot stronger,” Brown said. “We have guys like Cameron, who is one of the most athletic guys on the team. They’re not only big, but they can play.”

Willliams has turned the UCSB men’s basketball team around. Winning nearly 75 percent of his Big West games during his tenure at Santa Barbara, Williams took the Gauchos to the 2001-02 NCAA Tournament in his fourth-year and nearly upset powerhouse Arizona in the first round. Last season, UCSB lost just four conference games and won the Big West title outright before slipping in the Big West Tournament and then losing in the National Invitational Tournament to San Diego State. Williams has shown his commitment to creating a winning basketball program at Santa Barbara, bringing in competitive and athletic players who fit his system.

“Bob [Williams] is a competitive guy who’s got a bit of arrogance, and he’s simply one of the best coaches in the country,” Cal State Fullerton Head Coach Bob Burton said.

The Gauchos have historically struggled in November and December before things fall into place for the three-month stretch of Big West games. Hampered by early injuries and suspensions, the Gauchos will probably not realize their full potential until January, when they’re fully equipped with a full roster.