On the evening of Jan. 2, one night before UCSB students returned to classes from Winter Break, the UCSB men’s basketball team entered the Matadome to rumble with conference rival Northridge in an early Big West challenge. After struggling on the road to begin the 2004-05 season, Santa Barbara had convincingly seized two victories to start the conference schedule.

For the sake of optimism, it was a new year and the Gauchos were in first place.

Just before the tip-off, however, the sky blackened and rain poured down on the San Fernando basin. Senior forward Casey Cook – UCSB’s most lethal offensive threat over the past two seasons and Santa Barbara’s leading scorer, the same player who went into Pauley Pavilion just one year prior and literally single-handedly knocked off UCLA, the man who hit the last-second, game-winning three point bucket at the top of the arc at the Thunderdome to win UCSB’s 2003-04 season opener against Pepperdine – hit the floor midway through the first half, grimacing in obvious pain and grabbing a severely tweaked right leg.

Fans in attendance, players on the sidelines, even Head Coach Bob Williams gaped with hollow eyes at mid-court, each bearing his or her own version of facial disbelief. In an instant, Cook’s basketball career at Santa Barbara was over. Even Cook’s high pain tolerance and tough attitude couldn’t overcome a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot.

In many ways the clouds have not lifted for Santa Barbara.

There seemed to be something missing during last Saturday’s win over Riverside at the Thunderdome. While the Gauchos held off the Highlanders 58-54 and put themselves in excellent position to capture the fifth seed in the 2005 Big West Tournament, Cook peculiarly sat at the end of the bench and viewed the final home game of his career from the sidelines. The Thunderdome crowd, one of its smallest home finale attendance figures in recent memory, paid a highly warranted tribute to Cook and the rest of the seniors on the squad.

Cook blossomed into a star during his junior year after switching to the power forward position, improving each game and showing promise for a dominant 2004-05 campaign. The Thunderdome ceiling was raised extremely high for players just like Cook. It may be unfair to place the “what could have been” tag on Cook’s shoulders with an injury list as wide as Cook’s wingspan.

Somewhere amidst the unthinkable injury list and miserable on the road losing streak, the UCSB heart has skipped a beat and the Gauchos have suffered from a case of chronic hiccups for the rest of the season.

The Gauchos head into tonight’s game against rival Irvine at the Bren Events Center at 7 with plenty still at stake. Santa Barbara is guaranteed three more games this season, two regular season contests and at least one game in the Big West Tournament in Anaheim, a city where team’s dreams can be realized and season’s success destroyed in a single weekend.

In one respect, UCSB has exceeded expectations after Cook, junior guard Cecil Brown, junior forward Cameron Goettsche and company went down with injuries. Fifth place screams ordinary, but to be sure, 2004-05 has been no ordinary season.