Let the games begin.

The UCSB men’s basketball team officially begins the regular season tonight at 9 PST as the Gauchos invade Honolulu for a scheduled battle with the University of Hawaii.

Santa Barbara (0-0) will take the court without its top two scoring options from a year ago in uniform: Senior guards Branduinn Fullove and Nick Jones. But the defending Big West regular season champions know that playing without their stars in the opener will be a worthy test that will only make the Gauchos stronger late in the season.

“We’re pretty excited to start the season,” junior guard Chrismen Oliver said. “We were caught a little off-guard missing Fullove and Jones, but we’re going to be ready to play.”

The Rainbow Warriors (0-0), 2001-02 NCAA Tournament invitees, will hit the hardwood with a formidable lineup. Although it graduated Carl English (19.6 ppg) and Mark Campbell (6.2 apg), Head Coach Riley Wallace’s Hawaii team is one of the toughest squads to beat at home. The ‘Bows had a 24-game home winning-streak snapped last season, which was the fourth-longest winning tear in the nation at the time. Senior forward Phil Martin and senior guard Michael Kuebler will lead the charge for Hawaii.

Sophomore guard Josh Davis is scheduled to make the start for the Gauchos tonight. Filling the void left by the injured Fullove, Davis will use his long arms and excellent defensive capabilities to front a taller three-man in Martin. Sophomore forward Cameron Goettsche will need to bang the glass and help run the floor to be the recipient of a Gaucho backcourt that likes to run in transition and feed the ball down the court.

“I know they will be tough to cover,” Wallace, the most winning coach in Hawaii history, said. “We need to keep people off-stride and be patient.”

Although tonight’s contest at the Stan Sheriff Center is the season opener for both squads, the importance of winning may be measured in different respects. Projected to finish third in the Western Athletic Conference preseason coaches’ poll, the Rainbows understand that facing the Gauchos will help them in the strength-of-schedule category in the RPI rankings. Hawaii may be eligible for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season.

“We expect [UCSB] to be tough,” Wallace said. “We hope to beat Santa Barbara and then have them win the rest of their games.

As for the Gauchos, tonight’s game will measure the depth of the Santa Barbara roster. Over the past couple seasons, the Gauchos have put the brunt of the scoring responsibility on the shoulders of the starting players. With Fullove day-to-day and Jones out until January, the season opener will be just as much a test of its bench dependability as it will a mark of the Gauchos’ capability as a basketball team.

KTMS 990-AM will broadcast the game live from Honolulu.