Although it is extremely early in the Big West season, tonight’s contest at the Thunderdome between the UCSB men’s basketball team and Utah State has been one of the most anticipated games on the conference schedule.

Santa Barbara (7-4, 1-1 in the Big West) will try to halt the Aggies (9-1, 1-0 in the Big West) and its current six-game winning streak. Santa Barbara was voted to win the conference by both the media and the coaches at the Big West Media Day in Irvine in November, but a lot has changed since then. The Gauchos are healthy and finally appear to be gelling into character.

“We’re excited obviously, coming off with the win at Irvine [on Jan. 5],” UCSB Assistant Head Coach Marty Wilson said. “But [tonight’s game] is bigger with the Long Beach loss [on Jan. 3], because it magnifies things a little more.”

Junior forward Casey Cook, averaging team highs with 11.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per contest, and sophomore forward Cameron Goettsche should be up to the challenge of fronting Utah State junior forward Spencer Nelson, who is capable of dropping a triple-double if not matched correctly.

“It’s going to be a big game,” Goettsche said. “It’s simple, we just need to come out 2-1 after and avoid falling to 1-2.”

Goettsche’s a newcomer this season after transferring from Salt Lake Community College, where last season he played against current Utah State sophomore guard Chris Huber. Huber, who attended Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, also played with Goettsche at the University of Utah during their freshman season in 2001-02 and currently averages 4.2 points per game, ranking third on the team in assists as the Aggies’ back-up point guard.

The Gauchos know that some of the best talent in the Big West will be on display tonight at the Thunderdome.

“There are going to be some pretty good match-ups all the way around, and they are a veteran team like we are,” Wilson said. “But we’re better inside – and at depth and athleticism – than we were last year.”

While the two squads split in their two games last season, Santa Barbara cruised to victory over the Aggies in their home game by 12 points.

It’s been 25 days since the Gauchos last played at the Thunderdome on Dec. 13 in the 90-70 trouncing of University of San Diego.

“It’s the first time that the crowd is going to get a chance to see us after the big UCLA win [on Dec. 17],” Wilson said. “I know there are going to be a lot of people there because we are a good team.”