The Big West Tournament Begins: Turner’s Time to Shine

On April 9, 2010, the UC Irvine athletic department announced Golden State Warriors’ assistant basketball coach, Russell Turner, as the next man to lead the men’s basketball team.

The name alone created buzz and hype among the Irvine faithful, as many saw Turner as the individual who could transform an underachieving basketball program into a Big West contender for years to come.

Turner’s credentials certainly spoke to the coach’s potential to bring relevancy back to UCI basketball. While in Golden State, Turner worked under Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson. From 2000-2004, Turner was an assistant coach at Stanford. During the four-year span, the Cardinal basketball team amassed an overall record of 74-21, made three NCAA Tournament appearances and claimed the No.1 ranking in the nation twice. Prior to Stanford, Turner coached at Wake Forest, where he was part of two Atlantic Coast Conference championships and one National Invitational Tournament championship.

However, the success Antourage and ’Eater Nation expected in Turner’s first season has largely floundered.

Instead, Turner’s first season at the helm embodied inconsistency. With the exception of Cal State Northridge and UC Riverside, the ’Eaters beat every team in the Big West, including the top three teams: Long Beach State, Cal Poly and Pacific. However, UCI also lost to every conference opponent, including UCR twice and UC Davis, two bottom dwellers in the conference.

Sure, much of the blame can be placed on the injury bug that bit the most important position in basketball — the big men. A broken hand and a hip injury forced UCI’s starting center, Adam Folker, to sit out the entire season. Eric Wise, the ’Eaters’ go-to post player, only played 18 games because of a lower back and hamstring injury.

And when it wasn’t the injury bug it was the NCAA. Maxime Chupin, a freshman center from France, did not play a single game this season because the NCAA lagged on his eligibility.

The lack of big men certainly hurt the Anteaters. For a good part of the season, Pavol Lonsonsky was the only player on the court over 6 feet 4 inches and 6-foot-2-inch Mike Wilder was forced to play power forward.

Turner made do with what he had. With or without big men, the ’Eaters complied a 13-18 overall record, a 6-10 conference record and a berth in the Big West Tournament.

There is no doubt that Turner could have tallied more wins and earned a higher seed, if he had all of his big men healthy, but excuses are for the regular season. It’s March, which means tournament time.

This is why Turner was hired — to erase past failures, put UC Irvine over the hump and make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Turner’s predecessor, Pat Douglass, attained regular season success several times. In 2001, an Anteater squad led by Jerry Green amassed a 25-5 overall record, won the Big West with a 15-1 conference record and earned the No. 1 seed in the Big West Tournament. The following two seasons saw Douglass guiding the ’Eaters to two more 20-win seasons. But regular season success means very little in the Big West.

Despite these three outstanding seasons, Douglass never took the Anteaters to the promised land. In 13 seasons, Douglass qualified for 10 tournament appearances, and in those 10 appearances, only once did he reach the Big West Finals.

It is Coach Turner’s job to change this. If Turner can bring a Big West Championship to Irvine and propel the Anteaters into the Big Dance, he will forever be cemented in the halls of UCI history. Three times the Anteaters have played in the Big West Championship and three times the ’Eaters have fallen.

Turner was not hired to go undefeated in the regular season; he was hired to win championships. If Turner finishes his stint at UCI as the all-time wins leader, but no Big West championships or NCAA Tournaments appearance, then he was never the right man to lead UCI basketball. His postseason successes and failures are the ones that will be put under the microscope.

Although 2010-11 season was not what many expected, Turner and company have a chance to erase the regular season disappointment by making a deep run in the postseason. With two double overtime wins two weeks ago, the ’Eaters have shown that they have the resolve to be a tough out in the Big West Tournament. But if the Anteaters are one-and-done once again, then Turner’s first season will truly be a disappointment.

Coach Turner, your season begins on March 10. Let’s hope it doesn’t end there as well.