Year II: Togetherness Key

Friday night’s Midnight Magic at Shocktoberfest hosted a slam dunk contest courtesy of the men’s basketball team. The competition completely trumped the 2010 showcase. What did we learn? We learned that UC Irvine’s men’s basketball program is ready to grow together. Key word: TOGETHER. For the first time in years, the Anteaters look like a team.

The 2010 Midnight Magic pumped hype into the program, but it led to a false sense of hope. Darren Moore won his second straight dunk contest, but his performance was relatively unimpressive. Moore, at 6 feet 3 inches tall, was the only player who could actually dunk a ball with style, but having grown accustomed to windmills, 360s and reverse slams, the Antourage was simply bored.

The three tallest ’Eaters last season were Peter Simek (6 feet 9 inches), Pavol Losonsky (6 feet 9 inches) and Eric Wise (6 feet 6 inches). Slovakians Simek and Losonsky were far from big men. Simek routinely failed to body up on defense, and Losonsky was prone to settling for outside shots and was soft in the low post. Wise was one of the best Anteaters of the decade, but his vertical leap was about as sky-scraping as a bag of Doritos.

When the 2010 contest was over, first-year head coach Russell Turner threw down a slam of his own and the arena erupted. News swirled of Turner’s feat as ESPN grabbed hold of it; the OC Register jumped on board, and admittedly, so did I.

Everyone was curious to see how the Golden State Warriors’ former assistant coach would fair at a Big West school that has never advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Could he light a fire under the asses of players at a notoriously below-average basketball university? Could he whip Wise into shape? Could his fast-paced offense fit the roster he inherited? Could he make them instant contenders for a Big West title? Could a coach who has been at Wake Forest, Stanford and the NBA handle a losing season?

The team rode Turner’s hype for the first couple of months, starting 10-10. Wise was toned, Moore and Patrick Rembert were energetic and the Anteaters were dangerous. UCLA breathed a sigh of relief, knowing they scored just one more point than an average team in the Big West. Highly-ranked Illinois took their foot off the pedal and let the Anteaters scrape to within a respectable 14-point loss.

But UCI finished the last 12 games 3-9. Injuries and selfishness signified the end of a honeymoon phase as the ’Eaters failed to work together. Even the most team-oriented player, Mike Wilder, who shifted from shooting guard to power forward and snagged several rebounds per game at 6 feet 2 inches, couldn’t carry the team on his own.

It takes a team to win championships. From the guy on the end of the bench who nails half of his 3-point attempts, but only sees four minutes a game because he’s a weak defender, to the star power forward who scores 19 points per game, everyone must buy into the coach’s philosophy and everyone has to be on the same page. The Anteaters were reading different chapters at the beginning of the year, but by season’s end, they weren’t even reading the same book.

At an off-season open gym practice this summer, several freshman Anteaters studied together on the sidelines for a summer school education final. It was a sign of starting off on the right foot: they were already reading the same book.

Just four players who saw action in 2010-11 return for the Anteaters in 2011-12, and fortunately for Turner, they’re the perfect returners.

Wilder started 19 of 32 games, scoring 9.5 points and securing 5.7 rebounds per game. Turner will find a position for Wilder to start at, whether it’s guard or forward. Wilder is a leader. He’s personable, he works hard and he’s a team player.

Junior Daman Starring is another leader who knows how to communicate well and run an offense. Starring will compete for the point guard position that Rembert vacated. He started 30 of 32 games, scored 7.4 points per game, and averaged nearly one steal per game on defense last season.

Sophomore Chris McNealy played in 31 games, starting one as a freshman. McNealy should compete for a starting role this season in response to Moore’s departure. Despite his lack of experience, he was surprisingly composed last season. Lanky with a solid shooter’s touch, McNealy plays well on both sides of the ball and should continue to grow under Turner’s guidance.

Junior point guard Derick Flowers came off the bench in all 32 games last year. He’s always a lightning bolt for the ’Eaters. Flowers is quick, energetic and keeps opponents on their toes. As a fun-loving player, Flowers is great for team chemistry. He scored 1.5 points per game last season.

Along with Wilder, Starring, McNealy and Flowers are junior center Adam Folker and redshirt freshman Kevin Mulloy. Folker is one of Turner’s favorite rebounders, but after a string of injuries prior to last season, he was granted a medical redshirt. And with one year of practice experience under his belt, Mulloy has been itching to suit up in his Anteaters uniform rather than street clothes this season.

On Oct. 14, the Anteaters took the floor for the annual 3-point shootout against the women’s basketball team and the slam dunk contest. After losing the 3-Point battle-of-the-sexes shootout in 2010, the men’s basketball team settled the score on Friday night.

McNealy, Starring and Wilder lit it up from beyond the arc, but the most impressive shooter of the evening was freshman guard Travis Souza. Souza poured in 3-pointers with ease. His teammates have spoken volumes of his shooting abilities. Who knows, maybe he’s a poor man’s J.J. Redick?

Six true freshman and one sophomore transfer have rounded out Turner’s roster. The negativity that caused a schism in the 2010-11 squad has been buried with the rebirth of the program. For any new coach, convincing the old regime’s players is a challenge.

With the turnover the roster has undertaken this off-season, Turner should be privileged to have a young team that he can mold. Without resistance to change, Turner can now implement his plans and work towards a Big West Championship, which is plausible in the next few years.

Freshman Collin Woods defeated another first year, Mike Best, in the finals of the dunk competition. Everyone hyped up freshman forward Will “The Thrill” Davis II. At 6 feet 9 inches, his body type and athleticism scream promise, but Davis was upstaged by Woods and Best.

After the champion had been crowned and before the attention turned toward the concert, Davis threw down a left-handed slam with authority and hung from the rim by his elbow. Fellow freshman Marcus Bradley then leaped over all 6 feet 10 inches of Best, who snapped a picture of Bradley as he flew over; he would’ve cleared a hell of a lot of Doritos bags, that’s for sure.

A spotlight was cast on the Anteaters’ coach last season, but on Friday night he didn’t create a spectacle. He was in the building, but there was no dunk, no introduction and no fanfare for Turner. It was all about the players.

A coach can’t turn a team into champions, but if he guides the right individuals on the right path and gives them the tools they need to succeed, they just might find their way.

As each player released attempts in the 3-point competition and elevated at the iron in the dunk contest, the entire Anteaters squad formed an arch around the 3-point line, each engaged in the action and genuinely supporting their teammates. The returners were positive and the freshmen were wide-eyed, proud to be representing their university.

They then gathered to watch the Shocktoberfest concert together. Wilder and his afro crowd-surfed, like always, with a smile on his face. Now that’s a leader worth following.