Antourage Insider: The Wild [Big] West

An inconsistent winter break captured the ’Eaters season thus far in a nutshell. Blowout wins against Wyoming and Vanguard showed off the team’s depth, while a one-point loss to UCLA proved UC Irvine’s ability to compete with the elites. However, the Big West opener loss to UC Riverside was definitely the most disappointing game of the season thus far.

The Big West has been an “anyone can win” league for several years now. No game is a guarantee. UCI did not come out with the same intensity for their compatriot Highlanders that they did against their bullying big brothers [UCLA], and it cost them in a game that was technically more important to their season. Every Big West game is precious, and to blow one at home against UCR is not how you want to start the conference schedule.

It’s not the end of the world. The odd Dec. 28 start to the Big West season meant a small winter break crowd of less than 1,000. The game was a bit of a trap, what with the team coming off its two-day Christmas break and a near win against UCLA. However, the loss isn’t an end-all, as other Big West front-runners UCSB and Pacific have lost already as well. Last year, UCI beat UC Santa Barbara to open the Big West season, only to sputter the rest of the way and see the Gauchos make it to the NCAA Tournament. But more importantly, UCI still has not hit its peak. There is obvious potential for improvement on this ’Eater team.

Here are three New Year’s resolutions for the Anteaters, if UCI wants to be a serious threat for the Big West title come March.

1. Commit to penetrating and driving the ball. Recently the ’Eaters have gone into too many dry spells with their outside shooting, and Turner has lamented its affect on other areas of the team’s game when this happens. However, guards Darren Moore, Patrick Rembert, Daman Starring and forward Eric Wise all excel at driving to the basket and drawing the foul. While UCI is not a bad outside shooting team, they cannot rely on the three either — UCI does not have a dependable sharpshooter a la Brett Lauer from a couple years back.

2. Box out on defense. With center Adam Folker now out with an Achilles injury in addition to his hand injury from before and the NCAA still lagging on Maxime Chupin’s eligibility, UCI has been playing extremely small. So the rebounding deficit is somewhat understandable. Nevertheless, rebounding can be a mentality thing — just look at 6-foot-2-inch Mike Wilder out there. The sophomore guard known for his afro is the team’s third leading rebounder (5.7 rpg), filling in admirably when Pavol Losonsky and Wise get into foul trouble. Speaking of Losonsky, it is obvious that his preference as a player is taking mid-range jump shots and 3-pointers. He is not really a post presence as a rebounder or a defender, and it has been rough seeing him match up against the other team’s center.

3. Finish games. Whatever that X-factor is that good teams finish games out with, the Anteaters need to develop more of it. UCI has done a good job of battling back when necessary, and has pretty much been in every single game this season. However, recently they have been unable to hit those clutch shots needed at the end of games.

Up next: critical games against Cal State Fullerton at home and Long Beach State on the road. ASUCI is throwing a pre-game rally for the CSUF game, with festivities starting at 5:30 (hopefully they can pass out some more Antourage shirts). On the court, the ’Eaters will have to look out for Oral Roberts transfer Andre Hardy, who has averaged 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds since recovering from ankle surgery. The 23-year-old 6-foot-6-inch forward is described as rugged yet athletic, and will be an interesting match-up with Wise. The Titans boast two more Div. I transfers with similar numbers in Jer’Vaughn Johnson (San Diego State) and Orane Chin (South Florida), both averaging right around 15 points a game as well. Starting guards Devon Peltier and Perry Webster round out their starting lineup averaging 12.6 and 8.7 points, respectively. The Titans have been off and on like UCI — Wednesday’s game will go down to the wire. Long Beach State has impressed with two early wins on the season, and is probably the most athletic team in the conference. If UCI cannot beat Fullerton, a 0-3 start to the season schedule is likely.