After clinching a berth into the Big West tournament with a win over UC Davis last Saturday, the UCSB men’s basketball team is now looking to climb atop the conference fray and sneak their way into grabbing a bye heading into the tournament with a game against UC Riverside tonight in the Thunderdome. The teams’ previous meeting saw the Gauchos (6-8 Big West, 13-14 overall) lead by as much as 13, but the Highlanders (7-7, 16-11) came back for a 71-69 win. Head Coach Bob Williams said that his team has grown a lot since then, and he just wants them to keep playing as they have of late.

“We just hope that we come out and play our game,” Williams said. “It’s at home, and we play a little better at home. We hope to support the progress that we’ve made in the past three weeks with a solid effort [tonight].”

Santa Barbara is currently eighth in the conference, but UCR – who is only one game ahead of the Gauchos – is in fourth. The rest of the bottom-half teams are all 7-8, which means that a win over UCR tonight and seventh place UCI on Saturday’s Senior Night could give UCSB a valuable bye in the conference tournament.

“It’s huge if you can get the bye, there’s no doubt about it,” Williams said. “Everyone’s shooting for it. A group of teams are trying to fight for second place, and there’s a group shooting for fourth. We happen to be one of the teams that, if we win out, we have a shot at moving up to fourth and grabbing that bye.”

The Gauchos will have to make their conference run without two of their guards, junior James Powell and senior Nick Quick, who most likely are both out for the season with injuries. On Tuesday, Powell, who was second on the team in scoring (9.6 points per game) and minutes (26.0), took an elbow to the right eye during a routine rebounding drill during practice that fractured his eye socket. Powell has not had the best year shooting-wise, but his defense and team play have been excellent, and he has probably the biggest range of anyone on the team. As of their last game, Powell had taken more than a third of the Gauchos’ three point attempts. Quick, who has been featured more in previous games, stood to pick up a large share of Powell’s minutes. However, in Wednesday’s practice, Quick banged into another UCSB player and was sidelined with a moderate tear in his medial collateral ligament (MCL), which luckily won’t require surgery.

“There were two freak accidents,” Williams told “James takes an elbow to the eye during a regular rebounding drill and Nick pump-faked a guy into the air and then when he came down, the knees hit. I feel so bad for both. James just loves to play so much and this is hard for him. And Nick finally gets an opportunity to contribute at the end of his senior year, and with James out he would have played even more, and this happens. It’s heartbreaking.”

Despite the losses, the Gauchos still have a strong core of perimeter players that have recorded a large share of minutes this year to match a powerful post presence. Williams said that, no matter what look UCSB gives other teams, he’s confident in their depth.

“We feel comfortable if we decide to play big,” Williams said. “We play very comfortably when we decided to play tight in a zone with a smaller lineup.”

He went on to say that he is solely concerned with continuing to get wins.

“I think it’s important to carry the momentum through this weekend and into the tournament and hopefully move up in the conference before the tournament,” Williams said. “We need to keep playing like we’ve been playing, and hopefully it goes from there.”

Tip-off for tonight’s game against UCR is slated for 7. Saturday’s match against Irvine is Senior Night, so come out and support the departing Gauchos. Game time for the UCI game is also at 7 p.m.