Antourage Insider: Final Thoughts

With UC Irvine’s first round 79-72 loss to Long Beach State in the Big West Tournament, the 2010-2011 ’Eaters squad will on paper look very similar to the 2009-2010 team: a disappointing 13-19, (6-10 Big West) record and early exit in the postseason. Flashes of promise were mired by frustrating inconsistency. But this year was different. This year there was hope.

How the season ended: Whereas last year’s squad built a double-digit lead before dying a quiet death in the Big West Tournament, this year’s team kept fighting, despite a blatant bias from the referees. UCI was whistled on 26 fouls while Long Beach only got caught 15 times. This included an astounding 14-7 foul margin in the second half, where Long Beach was not called for a single foul in the first 10 minutes. 49ers’ forward T.J Robinson wound up shooting 18 free throws on the night, while UCI as an entire team shot 19. Robinson repeatedly leaned into UCI forwards Pavol Losonsky and Mike Wilder, getting them into foul trouble despite UCI’s best attempts at keeping their hands straight up. Although the box score and the ESPN recaps won’t say it, UCI was forced to defend less aggressively late in the game as every single post player, plus bigger guards Darren Moore and Daman Starring, were in foul trouble.

In the waning minutes though, UCI still had a chance to win. Down 74-72 with 39 seconds left, two uncharacteristic mistakes were the difference. With a small and quick lineup in the game to try and steal the ball, Moore instead fouled Long Beach’s Larry Anderson as he made a layup under the basket, resulting in a devastating three-point play. On the ensuing possession, UCI still with 30 seconds left to make up five points, Patrick Rembert’s pass was intercepted, and the game was over.

After the game, I asked Head Coach Russell Turner if he had any comment on the seemingly lopsided officiating. An intensely grim Turner stared ahead for a couple of seconds before answering: “No.”

Yes, integrity and respect were involved. But also, Turner simply refuses to make excuses, a mentality that he hopes his team will continue to take on as well.

Thoughts on the season: Turner brought a vibrant new energy to this team, one that was exciting even without alley-oops and emphatic blocks. Highs included nearly defeating UCLA, taking down Long Beach on Homecoming and the back-to-back double overtime wins late in the season. Lows included getting swept by Cal State Northridge and UC Riverside.

In the end, it would be irresponsible to ignore the impact injuries and ineligible players had on this team. Adam Folker’s absence took away much needed height, rugged defense and quite possibly the team’s best rebounder. Maxime Chupin never being ruled eligible by the NCAA removed another talented center from the equation. Eric Wise missing 12 games compromised 5-7 wins from the season total. Just one win in a string of four crucial Big West games could have meant a higher seed and greater swagger in the conference tournament.

Most exciting newcomer: With all due respect to Daman Starring, who was the most immediate new contributor this year, Chris McNealy is the guy who I think has the brightest future with the team. McNealy started off fast but seemed to hit a bit of a wall later in the season, but as a true freshman, he has vast potential. He has a tall and lanky frame that figures to be that much better with some added strength and muscle.

He led the team in blocks this season, and look for him to lead in many other categories in the future, filling in the vacancy that Darren Moore will leave. Hopefully UCI fans will be able to enjoy that running one-handed tear drop for years to come.

The players leaving the largest shoes to fill: This one is a tie between Rembert and Moore. The two senior captains provided a steadying presence for UCI, embracing Turner’s up-tempo scheme. The point guard position is the biggest question mark going into next season.

Thoughts on next year, with some insight from Coach Turner:

Overall, Turner expressed frustration at the late season slide, while remaining proud of their effort. He acknowledged that adjusting to the college game after being away for six years was more difficult than he expected.

“I hope the experience we had this year we can use to build on, to go beyond. Because the reality is that it appears like the season we had this year is almost exactly like the one we had last year,” Turner said. “My inability to change that overall picture is frustrating to me. I felt like we were well on our way to doing that, but we hit that wall.”

In terms of new recruits, Turner remains excited in the expected immediate impact of guard Collin Woods, an early period commit. Meanwhile, Turner said that his other early recruit, 7-foot center Thanos Thodos would likely end up at a junior college next season.

ESPN also lists two other freshman recruits for UCI: 6-foot-2-inch point guard Aaron Wright and 6-foot-5-inch shooting guard Reed McConnell. Wright is a “late bloomer” from Cerritos who ESPN thinks can step in immediately. He received an impressive 87 ranking, even higher than Woods’ 85 mark.

McConnell meanwhile is a sharp shooter who is planning to walk-on according to ESPN. Expect at least one, perhaps two more recruits to sign in the late signing period. Also, forward Kevin Mulloy will be raring to go after redshirting his freshman season this year.

Maxime Chupin’s failure to gain eligibility this season was one of Turner’s greatest disappointments of the year; a situation that he felt the NCAA did not get right. Chupin’s status for next season is still up in the air, but Turner is understandably less optimistic then he was before. Thankfully, Adam Folker will be back for sure. His hip surgery corrected an injury that the redshirt junior was likely playing with for much of his UCI career.

With a full squad next year, UCI has great potential for success. The energy of Anteater basketball has been established, and with a year under everyone’s belt, expect the team to cut the introductions and be able to mature much faster and earlier into the 2011-2012 season.

Thanks to all the Antourage and ’Eater Nation fans for reading along this season. It has been a fun ride; I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.