The UCSB men’s basketball team will welcome visiting Cal State Northridge into the Thunderdome tonight when the Gauchos (8-6 Overall, 3-1 Big West) host the Matadors (5-10, 2-3) in the second of three consecutive home games. Santa Barbara will play first in conference agaisnt Long Beach State (12-6, 5-0) on Saturday in a nationally televised game on ESPNU.

“We have to take care of the ball against Northridge,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They play extremely hard and press within their multiple defenses, so we will have to be ready for that.”

UCSB is coming off a 74-56 home win over UC Irvine (6-12, 3-3) on Saturday. Two days prior to that victory, the Gauchos suffered their first Big West loss of the season on the road at UC Riverside (10-8, 4-1) 79-70 in overtime.

Northridge is leaving home for the first time in three games, where it won one of those contests. The Matadors, who currently lead the Big West in steals per game, beat UC Davis (1-16, 0-5) on Saturday after losing to Pacific (5-12, 1-4) and Long Beach State (12-6, 5-0).

Freshman center Alan “Big Al” Williams has started the last three games for the Gauchos, contributing in a big way as a force inside. Williams has averaged 8.8 points per game and a team-leading 10.5 rebounds per game and 2.5 blocks per game, which both rank him second in the Big West.

“Al is just a beast,” senior guard Orlando Johnson said of the freshman big man. “You can’t really keep him off the glass … He is so big and strong, but also very athletic.”

Using Williams has allowed Coach Williams to play a bigger lineup, sliding senior forward Jaime Serna — who often starts at the center position — to power forward. Serna, who was hurt on Jan. 5 against Cal State Fullerton, missed the game at UC Riverside and played minimally against UC Irvine, but is expected to start tonight against the Matadors.

“Our big lineup has been very productive for us,” Coach Williams said. “It allows us to be versatile off the bench and create some nice mismatches.”

The Gauchos are 6-2 at home this season, with their only losses coming in overtime against San Diego State, and double overtime against UNLV in November. After two consecutive home games this weekend, Santa Barbara will hit the road, where it plays four straight — and seven of the next eight contests — away from the Thunderdome.

“All home games are really important,” Coach Williams said. “You want to win games at home and take care of business as much as possible.”