Accepting No Excuses: Turner to Take it One Game at a Time
Busting it up and down court, the Anteaters stretched the floor last Friday in one of their final preseason practices. With upcoming exhibitions at home against UC San Diego on Nov. 2 and Concordia University on Nov. 5, first-year coach Russell Turner is somewhat disappointed in his team. Not because of a lack of effort in practice, as there was plenty of effort, but because many of his athletes mentioned their anticipation for their Nov. 8 showdown with the Fighting Illini. A team ranked 13th by the Associated Press in its preseason projections, University of Illinois will welcome UCI to Champaign, Ill. next Monday. But before the Anteaters can take on the Fighting Illini, Turner wants his team to take care of their exhibitions.
“I’d like to think they’re fired up for UC San Diego and Concordia before Illinois,” Turner said. “I gave them a hard time that they all didn’t answer the first one, which is what I’m always going to hope they’re most looking forward to. But I understand it. I’m interested to see what they’ll bring in competitive environments where they’re underdogs.”
In six months, Turner has studied last season’s game tape, recruited exceptional talent and begun the massive overhaul process in transforming the Anteaters from a half-court offense revolving around junior forward Eric Wise to a team that pushes the pace.
Encouraging his somewhat undersized players to play with an up-tempo style, Turner hopes that his big men can keep up with the new offense. As the big man in the paint, Wise unselfishly dished out 97 assists last year. This season, he is making sacrifices while fitting into Turner’s scheme, which the coach believes will improve the team as a whole.
“The style of play [the team] had last year best-suited Wise, but we didn’t get enough out of the other guys,” Turner said.
Wise, who averaged 16.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3 assists in 32.6 minutes per game last season – all-team highs – has been humbled. Turner whooped him into shape, knowing that his forward is the key to his team’s success.
“For us to be successful, Wise has to be one of the best guys in the conference,” Turner said. “I’m pleased with the work he is putting in. As his body is changing, his game is improving. We’ve got to stay on that. Eric’s important to us.”
The 6-foot-7 coach admits that his favorite player is going to be his best rebounder. After watching the game tape and witnessing practices, Turner believes that junior center Adam Folker could be that man.
“Last year, he split time at center, but I think he’s the most talented rebounder I’ve seen in practice,” Turner said.
Turner hopes to exploit the talents of returning guards Darren Moore, Patrick Rembert, Mike Wilder, Emil Kim, Derick Flowers, Jonas Lalehzadeh, and Derrick Strings (whose status remains uncertain after suffering a leg injury at practice on Friday night) throughout the season, but at the same time he welcomes sophomore transfer Daman Starring to his squad. Starring averaged 11.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game last season at Louisiana’s Centenary College.
Another significant addition to the team is freshman center Maxime Chupin.
“As a player, he compliments Wise. He can rebound, guard big men, stretch the court and shoot threes. He’s a bright kid and we’re thrilled to have him.”
Turner has an idea of who he wants to start, but the upcoming exhibitions will influence his roster against Illinois.
“The team that finishes the game for us is more important than the team that starts for us,” Turner said. “I’ve got a lot of guys who could be starters. That’s a good feeling.”
With jobs at stake, nothing is guaranteed for those who started in the past, creating a sense of urgency at practice for returning starters, as well as players on the cusp. Moore sported a bandage under his eye after receiving an inadvertent elbow in practice last Thursday. Wilder drove to the basket at Friday’s practice, hit the hardwood, but bounced back up.
“Playing hard is what any good team expects to do,” Turner said after Friday’s practice. “Strings went down today, but it looks like he’s expected to be okay. We’ve been fortunate going through training camp to not have many injuries. We’ve had a few bumps and bruises, but every team in our situation, playing on a daily basis is bound to get a little banged up from time to time.”
During Friday night’s intersquad, Rembert weaved through a crowd of opposing defenders before losing the ball out of bounds. Feeling as if he had been fouled, the returning starter voiced his disapproval. Turner responded, “Don’t make excuses, that’s bullshit!” Rembert stormed down the court, played smothering defense and when his half of the team scored their next bucket, he let out a fiery scream before embracing his four other teammates.
UCI’s schedule looks to be much tougher than last year’s, featuring big away games against USC, University of San Diego and UCLA in addition to Illinois. As the regular season approaches, it’s crucial for an Anteater squad that started 8-6 last season before dropping 7 of their next 8 to avoid a similar lackadaisical midseason stretch. Entering the season with a newfound momentum, toughness and intensity, it’s unlikely that the team will flatline in the presence of their rookie head coach.