Hitting the road for the last time this season, the UCSB men’s basketball team starts off a two-game road trip against Cal State Fullerton tonight. The Gauchos (8-12, 2-6 Big West) have not been good on the road, going just 2-8 this season including a 1-4 mark in conference play. Head Coach Bob Williams said in an interview last night that the team headed down early to Northridge to settle in for the game.

“We’re down here already,” Williams said. “We’ve had a good week of practice and preparation coming into tomorrow night. Getting [junior forward Jesse] Byrd back in the swing of things is going to help out a lot. We need to keep plugging away.”

Santa Barbara has their work cut out for them defensively with a Matadors (11-10, 5-4 Big West) team that scores 70.2 points per game, In large part from the efforts of senior guard Josh Akognon, the Big West’s leading scoring at 19.3 ppg. The Gauchos have been successful on the defensive end this year, and are ranked third in conference in turnover margin and fourth in points allowed.

“We just have to be more physical and we have to take better care of the ball because they are good in transition and score a lot of points off of it,” Williams said. “We think we will be a better rebounding team with Jesse back. They get a lot of offensive boards, and they have a tendency to be productive scorers with those second chances.”

The offensive side of the court has oft been the site of Santa Barbara’s troubles thanks to inconsistent shooting efforts. Two weeks ago UCSB only managed 36 points against Pacific, but in the other three of their last four games the Gauchos dropped down at least 70. If Santa Barbara is to have a shot at snapping their current three-game skid, they are going to have to get quality shots out of their perimeter. Luckily for UCSB, CSUF has the league’s second-worst defense. Recently, junior guard James Powell, the Gauchos’ second-leading scorer has been coming off the bench. Williams said that he has moved his lineup around to bring more of a defensive mindset to start games and rely on more bench scoring.

“We’ve been inconsistent with our shooting, and that has been the only consistent part of it,” Williams said. “We do know that our post guys have consistently produced when we get them the ball down low, so we will be looking to do that.”

The biggest news in recent days for the Gauchos has been the return of junior forward Jesse Byrd, who has made it back on the court ahead of schedule after a late-December knee surgery. Byrd, who is a force in a position that is very youthful without him, scored seven quality points in just 10 minutes. With Byrd back in the lineup to support senior forward Chris Devine, the team’s leading scorer, and a trio of freshman in forwards Jaime Serna and James Nunnally along with center Greg Somogyi, the Santa Barbara front court will be a lot more solid.

As it stands, UCSB sits tied for last place in the Big West with Cal Poly. With the conference season halfway done, the Gauchos need to pull themselves into the Big West’s top eight in order to assure a spot in the conference tournament. With the young Santa Barbara squad gaining experience every day, the team should be ready to go come March.

“We have to get a lot better,” Williams said. “We have to get our confidence up. A couple wins on the road will get our confidence up tremendously. We know we have to keep battling, we know we need to keep working towards getting better in the league. With this year’s league, a couple road wins will move us up the standings quickly.”

Tip-off for tonight’s game is set for 7 p.m. in Northridge at Fullerton’s Titan Gym.