The UCSB men’s basketball team has not played a home game against the nation’s top-ranked team since hosting UNLV in February 1990. That fact, however, is likely to change on Nov. 21, when the Gauchos host North Carolina, next year’s probable preseason favorite.

The game against the Tar Heels will highlight a schedule that also includes a home renewal of an old rivalry with former Big West member Utah State, a home game in the O’Reilly ESPNU BracketBusters, an appearance at the Basketball Travelers Classic at Illinois State, and road games at San Diego State and Weber State.

“North Carolina is truly one of the great traditional programs in this business,” head coach Bob Williams said. “It’s huge that we have the opportunity to play the Tar Heels period, but to play them at home is even more special. They will be the preseason No. 1, so this is definitely a major game of interest for the program and community.”

UNC stars Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green have decided to return to Chapel Hill instead of entering the NBA draft, so the Tar Heels will have most of their key players back from a team that went to the 2008 Final Four and was ranked No. 1 for much of the 2007-08 season. In addition to Lawson, Ellington and Green, also returning will be senior forward Tyler Hansbrough, last season’s consensus National Player of the Year. 

The Gauchos will open the regular season on Nov. 14 when they host Cal State Los Angeles. On Nov. 17, they host Utah State in a return game for last year’s BracketBusters game in Logan, Utah.  After the game against North Carolina on Nov. 21, UCSB will go on the road for the first time, playing at San Francisco on Nov. 24, then at the Basketball Travelers Classic in Normal, Ill., from Nov. 28-30. The tournament also will include the host school, Illinois State, as well as Nicholls State and Winston-Salem State.

“Utah State is another great home opponent for us,” Williams said. “They are well coached, and the fact that we have a history with them should make for an interesting game.”

Santa Barbara will make its first of two trips to Utah on Dec. 4 when it travels to Utah Valley State. The Gauchos return home to host Loyola Marymount after final examinations on Dec. 13, before making their second trek to Utah for a Dec. 17 match-up at Weber State. They will play their final pre-Christmas game on Dec. 20 at San Diego State. UCSB will complete its nonconference schedule Dec. 29 when it hosts Ball State.

“All of the games are challenging,” Williams said, “but the games at San Diego State and Weber State will be very challenging. Those are two good programs and two tough places to play.”

The Gauchos will open the Big West season at Long Beach State on Jan. 2. They will play their first league home games on Jan. 8 when they take-on UC Irvine and Jan. 10 when they play Cal State Fullerton, the league’s representative in last season’s NCAA Tournament. On Feb. 1, UCSB and the rest of the Big West will take a break from the league schedule to take part in the O’Reilly ESPNU BracketBusters. The Gauchos will be a designated home team in 2009.

Finally, in contrast to 2007-08 when it played five of its last six regular season games on the road, Santa Barbara will close the 2008-09 campaign with six of seven games at home, playing its final road game on Feb. 25 at Cal State Northridge.

Bill Mahoney is UCSB‘s assistant athletics director.