After rolling through the majority of the opening two months of the season, the Gauchos got a rude awakening to conference play during the past two weeks, with four closely contested games that resulted in two losses for a team that was the consensus preseason pick to win the Big West Conference.

UCSB (13-4 overall, 2-2 in the Big West) heightened expectations even further after excelling in its nonconference games, with the only losses coming on the road to then #20 Stanford and North Carolina, the nation’s #1 team. The Gauchos handled all other comers and finished with an 11-2 record coming into Big West action.

“We played well enough [in the nonconference games] but obviously not to the level that we think we’re capable of, and we have a lot of improvement to do between now and the end of league,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “But we did what we were supposed to do.”

The standout game on Santa Barbara’s schedule coming into the season was a trip to North Carolina to play college basketball superpower UNC. While even the most ardent of Gaucho fans didn’t expect the team to win, the 105-70 loss proved to be significantly worse than anyone had imagined. Unlike in the loss to Stanford in which the Gauchos hung around deep into the second half, UCSB was never really in the game against UNC and the second half turned into a virtual layup line for the Tar Heels.

“It showed the difference between a top-tier team and a solid mid-major team so it gives us something to aspire too,” senior guard Alex Harris said. “They really gave it to us good and showed us that we weren’t nearly as good as we thought we were.”

After a breakout season last year, Harris has picked up where he’s left off and leads the conference in scoring at 21.1 points per game. Harris has upped his free-throw percentage to 81.7 percent, and his 51 percent shooting on three-pointers is good for second in the conference. More impressively, he is rapidly approaching the most coveted record for any college basketball program. With 1,407 career points, Harris is currently in sixth place on UCSB’s career scoring list, and he sits just 280 points away from breaking Carrick DeHart’s school record. However, anyone who has ever met the preseason Mid-Major All-American knows that personal accomplishments always take a back seat to the team’s success during the season.

“I promised myself that I wouldn’t read a single printout or check my averages at all because I’ve already put so much pressure on myself to have a great year,” Harris said. “That’s the last thing on my mind because I don’t want to jinx myself or over-criticize myself. I just want to enjoy my whole experience and at the very end I’ll look back.”

Joining Harris on the wings is sophomore guard James Powell, who is third on the team in scoring at 11.2 points per game. Powell is counted on to provide a second perimeter threat aside from Harris, and so far this season he has excelled in that role. When Harris missed an early season contest with an injury, Powell took the reigns and scored a career-high 24 points, and last Saturday when Cal State Fullerton held Harris to a season-low 13 points, it was Powell who stepped up and led the Gauchos to the victory with a game-high 20 points. Despite those two performances though, the undisputed highlight of Powell’s season so far was UCSB’s 63-60 victory over traditional rival UNLV on Nov. 27.

With the score tied at 60 in the games waning seconds, Powell received the ball on an inbounds play and after taking one dribble to his left, he rose and drilled a fadeaway game winning three-pointer with under a second to play. In addition to cementing Powell’s reputation as a big time performer in the clutch, the basket earned him the #2 spot on Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays.

Powell’s partner in the starting backcourt is fellow sophomore Justin Joyner , who is perhaps the best pure point guard in the Big West. Despite showing flashes of an emerging scoring touch, Joyner is primarily counted on to break opponents presses and distribute the ball. A 2006-07 Big West All-Freshman Team honoree, Joyner leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio and is third overall in assists with four per game. With the games getting more important every week, Joyner has played some of his best basketball, with only 16 turnovers in his last 10 games, and only one game all season in which he had more turnovers than assists.

The frontcourt is led by senior forward Ivan Elliott and junior forward Chris Devine. The 6’8″ Elliott is averaging 9.4 [[?]] points per game and a team-high 6.1 rebounds, in addition to leading the league in three-point percentage. Devine continues to give the Gauchos a reliable presence down low, night in and night out, ranking second on the team in scoring (13.7 points per game) and rebounding (5.6 per game). With his steady scoring outputs, Devine is now only 18 points from becoming the 22nd Gaucho to reach the 1,000 point club.

While the Gauchos bench might be short on numbers, it is long on talent with senior forward Nedim Pajevic, junior guard D.J. Posley and sophomore guard Paul Roemer providing solid contributions. All in all, this is a group that definitely has the talent to win the Big West regular season title, but the key as always will be UCSB’s performance in the Big West Tournament, the winner of which earns a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

“I measure my success by did we have the best year that we possibly could have and did we hang up a [Big West championship] banner,” Harris said. “Anything else will just be icing on the cake.”

With Big West play entering its third week, the Gauchos have already felt their share of the pressure that comes with being the preseason favorite. Every opponent has given UCSB it’s best shot, and Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine have already scored early season blows to Santa Barbara’s title hopes.

“It’s been tough like we expected it to be. Teams have been gunning for us and they’re unbelievably prepared and excited and emotional when they play us,” Harris said. “I’ve felt like every team we’ve played has been so juiced and amped up for the game. It’s a test or our character and it’s going to be interesting but it’s going to be a lot of fun too.”