UCI men’s basketball returns to the court with two All-Big West honorees, four other letter-winners with another year under their belts, two Slovakian junior college transfer big men and three dynamic freshman guards. Anteater basketball has yet another chance at reaching the promised land of NCAA basketball for the first time in 2009-10.
“The amount of preparation the players have put in for this season makes me think there is a lot of motivation and direction and a desire to excel,” Head Coach Pat Douglass said.
Last year, UCI had a rough start to the season, going 2-10 against a tough non-conference schedule, but finished the year strong in conference, going 10-9. They played tournament teams Utah State and Utah close, and blew out eventual Big West champions Cal State Northridge in front of a “Blackout” crowd. The Matadors would go on to give No. 2 seed Memphis a run for their money in the first round of the tournament. Meanwhile, UCI was edged out by UC Davis, who they matched up with poorly, in the first round of the Big West Tournament.
“I thought we were playing really well at the end of last year, but we needed to play better defensively and we were still a little young,” Douglass said. “This team has more depth and more size and quickness, although shooting is suspect, but we have more experienced players.”
Leading the way is sophomore second-team All-Big West forward Eric Wise. The big-bodied, Charles Barkley-esque Wise may not look like your typical basketball star, but has a wealth of moves at his disposal and simply knows how to score. This year, he will be recognized as the Anteaters’ clear go-to guy, with some expanded positional duties.
“We might move Eric Wise to the 3 a little bit,” Douglass said. “It’s a tough matchup for the opposition, and he has demonstrated that he can guard a wing. It’s not something that will happen for long periods of time, but it’s something that if we want to go big we’ll look at.”
On the perimeter is honorable mention All-Big West guard Michael Hunter. The 4th year senior has played point guard in the past but will see more time at shooting guard this year. He showed a propensity for nailing three’s and flashing exceptional speed. Junior Darren Moore, who started six games last year before hurting his knee and taking a medical redshirt, is back and, judging by his dunk contest title, is at 100 percent. He will re-join Hunter and Wise in the starting lineup and try to make up for lost time.
“We were counting on [Moore] defensively because he’s a big wing,” Douglass said. “He had an outstanding career in junior college so his loss was definitely a setback. He’s performed really well thus far and doesn’t show any side effects to the injury.”
Junior point guard Patrick Rembert and center Zack Atkinson round up the initial starting lineup. Rembert starred in the Big West Tournament run his freshman year, while Atkinson, at 6’9 and 220 lbs, has the physical body to excel in the paint.
“Zack has stayed here the whole summer working on his game, and wants to play well. A year into the program, he knows what we expect of him a little bit more,” Douglass said. “He’s improved an awful lot since last year.”
New Butte College transfers Pavol Lonsonsky and Peter Simek will attempt to replace the production of graduated big man Kevin Bland. Losonsky, at 6-8 and 235 lbs, is advertised as a versatile big man who can replace Bland’s scoring, while Simek, at 6-9 and 245 lbs, will be able to rebound and man the center spot. Sophomore Canadian high school superstar Adam Folker will also return and provide depth in the post.
“[UCI shot the three a lot last year], but this year one of our strong suits is our 4 and 5 positions, so we’ll hopefully go inside more this year,” Douglass said.
Redshirt sophomore Derrick Strings and a trio of freshman guards will provide an abundance of perimeter play.
“Strings was shooting the ball real well at the end of last year, and he’s shot well thus far in the fall,” Douglass said. “He’s never bashful about getting his shot, so he’ll get his share.”
Combo guard Brandon Scott and 3-2 guard afro-sporting Michael Wilder look to immediately contribute, while top recruit Derrick Flowers awaits the results of a potential foot injury.
“Wilder is more of an aggressive physical player, Scott is a good jumper, sees the game, more finesse type,” Douglass said.
Unlike in recent years, the non-conference schedule for this season does not feature any marquee home matchups. In place of Pac-10 opponents such as Oregon, the Bren will host the likes of San Jose State and Pepperdine.
“It’s not a change [in scheduling strategy], it’s just difficult to get those big-time schools,” Douglass said. “To get an Oregon to come here … a lot of schools never get a school like that to go to their place. It’s not every year you get a Pac-10 school or a Mountain West school to come to your place.”
However, the team does travel to Austin, Texas, to face the top 10 Longhorns, and hopefully will be able to boost their win-loss record early on.
“I do anticipate playing much better in non-conference,” Douglass said. “The schedule is a little more realistic. Even if we had the experience last year, it was a very tough schedule last year.”
With the departure of Assistant Coach Tod Murphy, who left UCI for a Division III head coaching job, former top Stanford assistant coach and Idaho State head coach Doug Oliver joins the staff.
“He has a vast knowledge and experience in the game because he was a head coach as well,” Douglass said. “He also coached in the highest level being in the Pac-10, and he’s been able to step right in and instruct the guys on what the system is all about.”
Come out and watch UCI take on Concordia University in an exhibition match on Nov. 9, and University of La Verne in the season home opener on Nov. 13.
“We’ll be a fun group to watch play … the season could be very exciting,” Douglass said. “We have players that know what it takes to win in this conference and they’re prepared to do well, so I’m excited.”