UC Irvine aiming for first NCAA tournament appearance as a Division I member
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In the first two seasons of Russell Turner’s tenure at UC Irvine the Anteaters took their lumps, winning a total of 25 games and finishing no better than sixth in the Big West (six league victories in each season). But things changed for the Anteaters in 2012-13, as head coach Russell Turner’s team won 21 games (11 in Big West play) and made the program’s first postseason appearance since 2002.
Two of those victories came at the expense of Big West regular season champion Long Beach State, with the Anteaters knocking off the 49ers in the semifinals of the Big West tournament. UC Irvine fell in the title game to Pacific, ending their hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament and resulting in a trip to the CollegeInsider.com tournament.
Despite the graduation of Adam Folker, Daman Starring and Michael Wilder expectations are high for UC Irvine entering the 2013-14 season, with the prevailing feeling being that the Anteaters have the combination of returnees and newcomers needed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time as a Division I member.
“Last season we played as a team, and we had [great] chemistry on and off the court,” said junior forward Will Davis II in an interview with NBC Sports when asked what the difference was last season compared to the season prior. “We did many things together to improve our team bonding, and I feel like everyone had the same goals to be as good as possible, push each other in practice and do our best to win every game.”
One area where the improvement was evident in 2012-13 was defensively, with the Anteaters limiting opponents to a Big West-best 38.7% shooting from the field, an improvement of nearly three percentage points from the season prior (41.5%). Davis II was a big reason why UC Irvine improved in that department, with his 2.4 blocks per game leading the Big West and resulting in the 6-foot-8 forward winning Big West Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Davis II saw a decent amount of playing time at the center position, but that may change some given how much size the Anteaters have inside. UC Irvine has three 7-footers, including freshmen Mamadou Ndiaye (7-foot-5) and Giannis Dimakopoulos (7-foot-2) and sophomore Conor Clifford (7-foot-0), and two 6-foot-10 centers in John Ryan and Mike Best. That size could result in Davis II playing the majority of his minutes at the four, which will likely benefit the Anteaters.
“I can guard some,” said Davis II. “For example, if we play zone I’ll guard a wing instead of being the center in the zone. It just takes a little bit of the load off my back as I won’t be the lone big man and have to guard the five every night.”
But even with the many big men at Turner’s disposal, he’s got some solid perimeter players as well. UC Irvine adds New Mexico transfer Dominique Dunning and freshman Luke Nelson, who was named England’s Under-18 Player of the Year in 2013 and averaged 19 points per game during this summer’s Under-19 European Championships. They’ll join two returnees in senior Chris McNealy and sophomore Alex Young who should be in the running for all-conference honors this season.
The 6-foot-4 McNealy is the lone senior on the roster, and the most experienced player in the Big West this season (2,243 minutes) was a productive sixth man (9.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg) for the Anteaters last season. As for Young, the 6-foot-1 guard is both the present and the future of the UC Irvine program. As a freshman Young started 29 games and posted averages of 9.2 points, 3.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game, sharing Big West Freshman of the Year honors with Hawaii forward Isaac Fotu.
With a year of experience under his belt, Young has the skill needed to cement his standing as one of the conference’s best players.
“He’s progressed a lot. He’s taken on a leadership role since he’s our returning point guard, so he’s been very vocal,” said Davis II of Young. “He’s been putting in a lot of work outside of practice as well.”
Leaders stepping up is something to keep an eye on as the season wears on, with the Anteaters losing three in the form of Starring, Folker and Wilder. Starring was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 12.9 ppg on a balanced squad that had just one player averaging double figures. The 6-foot-9 Folker averaged 9.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game playing alongside Davis II inside and Wilder, the man who was known by the casual observer for his hairstyle, was also one of the Big West’s most versatile players (8.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.0 apg).
Players such as McNealy, Davis II and Young will need to grab the reins and be the leaders the Anteaters need if they’re to be the Big West contender many expect them to be.
Given the amount of success that Long Beach State has enjoyed of late, winning at least a share of the last three Big West titles, dethroning the 49ers won’t be an easy task despite their having to account for the graduation of Big West Player of the Year James Ennis. But even with that being the case the rest of the Big West will concede nothing, with UC Irvine being among the teams taking a run at the throne.