The proverbial saying goes, “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.” Last season, UC Irvine’s men’s basketball team faced a tough road schedule. In head coach Russell Turner’s first year at the helm, the team travelled to No. 13 Illinois last November to start the regular season off and lost by just 14 points after struggling mightily in the first half. The team then lost by 13 to the Trojans at USC on Nov. 13. Turner and the Anteaters entered UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion with a record of 6-5 last Dec. 23. Against a team with a history of living in the NCAA tournament, Irvine barely lost the game to the Bruins 74-73.
In comparison, under the guidance of former head coach Pat Douglass, the Anteaters lost 89-42 against the No. 3 Texas Longhorns in 2009.
Turner’s team made great strides against exceptional teams in 2010-11 but lacked focus against weaker opponents. As the season wore on, team chemistry withered. The team’s leading scorers, Darren Moore and Eric Wise, seemed more concerned with their statistics than they were with winning. UCI ended the season 13-19 and was eliminated in the first round of the Big West Tournament.
“We had a lot of resistance to change,” junior forward Mike Wilder said of the transition year.
This season Wilder will become the poster boy of Turner’s team. A 6’2 forward from Long Beach Wilson High School, Wilder used his volleyball background to sky for rebounds over opposing players in the post. With Wise and center Adam Folker injured throughout last season, the team was forced to place Wilder, a natural shooting guard, at power forward. Wilder readily accepted the challenge, scoring 9.5 points and snagging 5.7 rebounds per game.
During the past offseason, UCI lost three key players as Moore graduated, senior Derrick Strings transferred and Wise moved on to USC, citing that he wants an opportunity to make it to “the league” (the NBA) on Twitter.
With the exodus of key veterans, the Anteaters will be extremely raw in 2011-12, but they sure haven’t messed around throughout the offseason.
As NBA players twiddle their thumbs during the lockout, they are unable to practice at team facilities. Throughout the offseason, UCI has hosted open gym practices in which players from UCI, Concordia and other college teams in the area have had the privilege of playing alongside professional players. The Anteaters are a team that has only four players returning who saw minutes in 2010-11. Eight of the thirteen eligible players on roster are freshmen and none are seniors.
The first organized practice of the year is still weeks away. Over the summer, Turner had to trust his players to prepare themselves for the upcoming season. In compliance with NCAA rules, the UCI coaching staff has been unable to organize official practices for months. Instead, the team gained valuable experience by learning from the best of the best in pickup games at the Bren Events Center and Crawford Court. Five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, Oklahoma Thunder guard James Harden and Phoenix Suns guard Josh Childress are just a few of the players who appeared throughout the summer and made a lasting impression on the Anteaters.
“Not to knock any player we play against, but we’re not gonna see a guy like Josh Childress or Jamal Sampson all year,” junior point guard Derrick Flowers said.
“I was on Kobe’s team once playing against Childress,” recalled Flowers. “It’s hard to get over that hump when you say, ‘Damn! He’s the best player in the world.’ What [Kobe has] done against the guys in the [NBA], I’ve seen that here. When he plays, he plays to win. If it’s in the NBA or in a scrimmage, he plays hard.”
In the final open gym practice of the summer, freshmen standouts Collin Woods and Will Davis played in an intrasquad game against former Los Angeles Laker and Charlotte Bobcat Jamal Sampson.
“We’ve got serious basketball players,” Turner said of his team. “They’re exposed to great players, not just in the regular season, but in the offseason in open gym as well.”
On one possession, Woods, an Arizona native, drove down the court and dished the ball to Davis in the post. Davis made a crafty move and banked a layup off the glass and out of Sampson’s reach for the field goal. On another possession, Davis threw down a dunk against Sampson.
“We’ve been mixing up the teams and really getting a feel for each other this summer,” Wilder said.
At one point in the summer, Arizona State alumnus and Oklahoma Thunder guard James Harden showed up, according to Flowers.
“Harden was out here the other day,” he said. “He wore sweat pants and a long-sleeve windbreaker and played out of his mind. Great athlete.”
Pat Sanders, a former All-Big West player at UCI who has played professionally in Amsterdam and competed in the NBA Developmental League, also came to play. He returned to his alma mater to scrimmage Turner’s team and stay in shape.
The Golden State Warriors’ 2011 first-round draft pick, Klay Thompson, attended Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Orange County before attending Washington State University. Thompson attended several open gyms and a few of the Anteaters caught his attention.
“[Davis] is real athletic around the hoop and has a great jumper,” Thompson said. “[Wilder] can shoot it and [Daman Starring] knows how to run a team. He’s a good point guard. It’s a lot of fun playing open gym with them.”
As Flowers sat on the sidelines with a recently diagnosed stress fracture in his leg, he couldn’t hide his disappointment, but he still appreciated the opportunity to watch and dissect Childress’s game.
Childress grew up in Lakewood before attending Stanford University, where Turner was his assistant coach when he was the Pac-10 Conference player of the year in 2004.
“While I was at Stanford I always watched film with Coach Turner. He taught me how to be a professional,” Childress said of his gratitude towards the Anteaters’ coach.
“I’ve played professionally for seven years,” Childress added. “You pick things up along the way and it’s nice to pass it along to these guys [at UCI].”
Having the opportunity to see how professionals approach their craft has been an eye-opening experience for a number of wide-eyed youngsters on Turner’s squad. While the Anteaters’ starting roster positions may as well be up for grabs, the team is blessed with youth, athleticism and size, and UCI has done their best to narrow the gap in terms of experience.
“The level of talent that we’ve seen this summer is only making us better,” Wilder said, “especially for the young guys. It’s going to pay off for us.”