Although the 6-foot-8-inch senior captain seems to be naturally gifted at basketball, with a versatile inside and outside game, Bland has worked hard to reach where he is now. He had to go through San Joaquin Delta College out of high school to improve his skills.
“I didn’t even play much my freshman year in junior college,” Bland said. “I worked with the coach at the JC, teaching me how to shoot, [improve my] ball handling, and have post-moves instead of just being tall and putting the ball back in the basket.”
Bland’s hard work paid off when he was named the California Junior College player of the year his sophomore year. Recruited to UC Irvine by Assistant Coach Tod Murphy, he red-shirted a year to improve his game.
“When I came here, I had to work on doing everything a little quicker,” Bland said. “Being able to get the shot off quicker, get the rebound quicker, crossover quicker.”
Bland had a bit of a spotty year his junior year, contributing in a supporting role. However, he did show glimpses of promise leading the team in steals and having a few big games, including 17 points against Nevada and eventual NBA first round draft pick Javale Magee. This year, among high expectations from both the coaches and the fans, Bland has improved even more, leading the Big West in double-doubles with 7.
“I don’t really like to think about [what people expect me to do],” Bland said. “Last year, obviously my role was different. Last year we had [Darren] Fells and [Patrick] Sanders, so I kind of tried to play more D and get steals … if I got into foul trouble it was OK, we had other guys. This year I’ve got to keep myself in the game and get rebounds.”
Because of a mostly unselfish attitude, Bland has been up and down with his box score lines. He lit up Oregon for 26 points, driving to the basket repeatedly, shooting 12 for 14 from the field. Against Norfolk State, Bland nabbed an impressive 18 rebounds, the most by any UCI player in 25 years. Against NCAA tournament bound Utah, Bland led the team with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Bland’s contributions are well-rounded also, with games at Cal Poly,where Bland scored 11 points with five rebounds, but also added seven assists, a block and two steals.
“It depends on how they guard me,” Bland said. “For a while I was playing the three, so I had a lot of my scoring games because you’re coming off screens and you get to shoot the ball. I had an OK game at Riverside because they were doubling [Eric] Wise the whole time, so I’d get more open shots. It’s all about the match-ups that night — how do they match up against us and how do we match up against them.”
The Anteaters as a team began play amid much hype and marketing, as well as a lot of inexperience. Coach Pat Douglass brought in eight new players, including five freshmen. After some tough losses to Pac-10 schools USC and Oregon, UCI took an unexpected beating in a horrid loss at Idaho, 101-47.
“We thought we were going to be pretty good and things were going to work out, but then you go to Idaho and get beat by 50 and it kind of puts things in perspective,” Bland said. “We realized we did have a lot of things we needed to work on. It was just about getting practices under our belt. Now we know how to help each other on defense … there are definitely some teams in the preseason we lost to that we could beat now.”
As the season progressed, UCI slowly started piecing it together, hanging close with highly regarded Utah State on the road and beating Pepperdine on the road. Bland was named to the all-tournament team in a positive Basketball Travelers Tip-Off Tourney in Springfield, MO. However, in between was a disappointing loss to Seattle University at home and UCI finished the non-conference part of its schedule an abysmal 2-10.
“It’s easy to pack it in when you struggle early in the season, and just be like ‘Alright, we’re terrible,’ ” Bland said. “It’s been a long process … if you see other guys kind of feeling down, you just try to pick each other up. We had the mindset of ‘Let’s be the best we can be.’ We depended on each other and were able to look to each other for strength.”
UCI ended up finishing the season 10-8, a drastic improvement from the beginning of the season. While the ‘Eaters still suffered a few close losses, they were able to prevail in overtime at home against Cal State Fullerton and in a dramatic Homecoming game win against UC Riverside. They were also able to beat Big West leader Cal State Northridge by 22 on Feb. 18.
“My learning curve when I first got here is like what we went through at the beginning of the season,” Bland said. “You can’t take possessions off … you got to play defense. I think guys are finally covering each other and learning how to adjust to each situation.”
The last step is the all-important Big West Tournament, where the winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Last year, UCI was able to get hot at the tournament, winning three straight games before falling to Fullerton in the finals. This year, the ‘Eaters are once again the fifth seed and have similarly lofty aspirations.
“[Bland and guard Brett Lauer’s] senior year hasn’t gone as planned in terms of the win column, but if you can get to the NCAA tournament, then that’s all you need … your year’s made,” Bland said. “Most of our goals that we set we haven’t really accomplished because we set pretty lofty goals for ourselves. But all the [conference] games have been close, and we can still get one last goal. Anything’s possible with the Big West Tournament.”
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