After a 2004-05 season which saw the injury-riddled UCSB men’s basketball team finish in eighth place in the Big West Conference, the team’s prospects already appear to be looking up – even before the first tip-off of the new season.

With four of last season’s starting five returning to the court along with six newcomers, 2005-06 team enters the new season with a positive outlook and is picked to finish third in the conference.

“First, I’m looking for a Big West championship. Second, I want to play and win a game in the NCAA [Tournament]. Not just play a game but also win it,” sophomore guard Alex Harris said. “On a personal level, I just want to get better in every statistical category and I’ve worked hard over the summer so I think I can do that.”

The Gauchos return nine letter winners to the court this season, including five backcourt players, a group expected to become team leaders this season. Senior guard Josh Davis returns as the only player to start every Santa Barbara game last season and as the top returning scorer, averaging 10.1 points per game last season.

Senior guard Cecil Brown returns to competitive action after spending the 2004-05 season on the bench with knee and ankle injuries. As long as he is healthy, Brown will likely be the starter at the off-guard position, where he averaged 7.7 points and 1.5 assists per game in his sophomore season.

“I think Josh and Cecil both need to step up and be leaders,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They both have a lot of experience here. They both have been starters and they both played on the team that won the league championship. So they have the best depth of experience of anybody in our program and they both have the personalities to step up and lead.”

Along with Brown and Davis, the Gauchos return Harris to the back court where he saw an a lot of time as a freshman, averaging 26 minutes per game and making 24 starts last year. Also returning are senior guards Joe See and Michael Chambers, who combined for 12 points per game last season.

After losing nearly every frontcourt player to an injury at some point during the 2004-05 season, the Gauchos bring back four post players and have solidified the four and five positions with four newcomers.

“I think we’re going to be a lot better in the post,” Assistant Coach David Campbell said. “We’ve definitely been missing size in the post. We just haven’t had that size and we’re getting it this year.”

Senior forward Cameron Goettsche saw limited action last season due to injury but is expected to step in as the starter in the five position this season. Along with Goettsche, junior forward Glenn Turner and sophomores forward Chris Moore and guard Derek Rasp bring experience at the four and five positions up front.

Adding to the core group in the post will be 6’6″ sophomore Chidi Ajufo, 6’8″ freshman Tom Garlepp, 7’3″ freshman David Massey and 6’7″ sophomore Chris Devine. Ajufo, a London native, transferred to UCSB from Pensacola Community College and is expected to bring a physical presence to the five-spot. Garlepp, another international player out of Australia, gives the Gauchos rebounding and shot blocking, while Massey is expected to redshirt this season.

“Garlepp can play on the perimeter a bit,” Campbell said. “Ajufo brings great strength and athleticism, although he’s a little raw right now. If he can defend and rebound and finish under the basket, I think he’s going to give us an added bonus.”

Devine will make his first appearance in a Gaucho uniform after two years of sitting out of competitive action. After a redshirt freshman year and knee surgery last season, UCSB is looking for many good things from Devine.

“I think you’re going to see Chris Devine play a lot on the inside this year. He’s a player that can play both inside and out,” Campbell said. “He brings a new level of intensity that we haven’t seen around here for the past couple years, so we’re excited to see him on the court.”

The returning players and newcomers will have a lot on their plates with the Gauchos’ preseason schedule, which is one of their most difficult in recent years and features opponents from the West Coast Conference (WCC), Pac-10 and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Preseason highlights include Santa Barbara’s Nov. 25 game at North Carolina, its Nov. 28 game at Arizona State, and its Dec. 28 matchup at home against Portland.

“This is probably, since I’ve been here, the most challenging preseason schedule we’ve had. We’ve got teams like San Diego, Loyola Marymount and Portland, in addition to North Carolina and Arizona State,” Campbell said. “That’s a pretty tough schedule, but if we progress like we think we are, and play against that quality of a preseason schedule, that’s going to do nothing but help us when league rolls around.”

Along with the changes to the roster, Santa Barbara has also learned from last season’s injuries, making adjustments to its workout routine.

“We’ve changed the emphasis of our strength program,” Williams said. “Earlier, our strength coach David Esparza did a great job of doing what I asked him to do which was make us bigger, stronger and more athletic. Now I’ve changed it and we’ve actually incorporated into our strength program being more fit, being more flexible and injury prevention.”

With all the change occurring behind the scenes this season, the Gauchos look poised for a return to the top of the Big West conference. Exhibition play begins tonight for UCSB when they take on UC San Diego, a Division III squad, at the Thunderdome at 7 p.m.