The Young and the Rested

Marlon Castillo/New University

Youth is one common goal that society consistently strives for. From a middle-aged mother seeking a fresh face by means of plastic surgery, to the young adult longing for the return of their childhood as professional ambitions and the real world draw near, to the Green Bay Packers deciding that Aaron Rodgers was their 25-year-old solution to replace a 39-year-old quarterback in Brett Favre, life is often measured by our ability to firmly grasp that fountain of youth.

College basketball is one exception to this phenomenon. Kentucky’s John Calipari might tell you otherwise – the Wildcats’ coach has routinely recruited and started potential “one-and-done” freshmen. One year they’re attending Prom, three months later they’re living in a dorm room and a few months after that, they’re shaking Commissioner David Stern’s hand at the NBA Draft.

Last season, Butler University, known for having a scrappy program, completely defied expectations, going against the grain of the  Kentuckys of college basketball. They surprised the nation once again with a deep NCAA Tournament run, finishing as runner-up in the national championship game.  They accomplished this with an experienced group of players who had grown familiar with each other over a few seasons. It wasn’t purely talent — they had chemistry. Butler had two seniors, three juniors and one sophomore starting. They entered the 2010-11 season with 13 years of experience in their starting five alone.

Closer to home, Long Beach State started four juniors and one senior last season, a combined 11 years of experience,—and- they were the Big West’s regular season champions. In UCI’s exhibition game on Nov. 2 against Cal Baptist, the Anteaters’ starting five will likely be composed of just five years of experience if sophomore Chris McNealy, juniors Daman Starring and Mike Wilder and two freshmen start.

This year the UC Irvine Anteaters’ entire active roster contains just nine years of experience, and that’s not just their starting five – that includes all 13 athletes. With seven true freshmen, one redshirt freshman, one sophomore and four juniors, they’re a long ways from being the Butler of the Big West. But if they play their cards right and the eight current freshmen learn to play as a unit, they’ll be a couple years away from challenging for a Big West title.

Add these youngsters to a team that finished 13-18 in 2011 and was defeated in the first round of the Big West Tournament, and let the bittersweet growing pains begin.

And now! The starting lineup for YOUR Anteaters … Sort of :

Wilder, Starring, McNealy and junior Derick Flowers represent the only four players who saw minutes for the ’Eaters in 2010-11.

Determining a starting five for UCI is no small task. UCI is blessed with depth, but lacks a leading scorer. One or two players must emerge and take ownership of the offense. Wilder and Starring are vocal leaders, but points win games, so any one of the freshmen has an opportunity to establish himself as a leader.

From top to bottom, the Anteaters are consistently solid, but in a sea of contributors, scorers must emerge. Perhaps 10 of the 13 Anteaters on the roster have the potential to attract significant consideration for the starting lineup throughout the season, including freshmen Will Davis II, Marcus Bradley, Collin Woods, Aaron Wright, Mike Best and Kevin Mulloy.

Last season, seven of 12 Anteaters received significant playing time. Expect that number to jump drastically as Turner challenges his players to earn the right to lead UCI for years to come.

Consider it a free-for-all in terms of playing time. The Anteaters’ highest scoring returner is Wilder, who scored 9.5 points per game last season. Turner has suggested that Wilder, McNealy and Starring are expected to start due to their collegiate experience.

Wilder is the “Wild Card.” He can play wherever Turner needs him, whether it’s shooting guard when the team plays big or power forward when they decide to run the floor. The 6’2” junior excels on offense when guarded by bigger defenders, and he holds his own on defense at power forward despite the height difference.

Junior center Adam Folker is progressing from hip surgery after sitting out the 2010-11 season with a broken hand. Pencil Folker into the temporary starting lineup at center, and once he’s healthy, he’s Turner’s favorite rebounder.

This leaves one open slot, which is likely to be filled by 6-foot, 8-inch 210 pound freshman forward Will Davis II. If that introduction wasn’t long enough, he’ll make sure to introduce himself to the Antourage soon enough. Davis is athletic, long and looks like Eric Wise on Jenny Craig. He has an extensive arsenal of moves in the paint and should be Irvine’s leading scorer while shifting between power forward and center throughout the season.

Areas in need of improvement:

The Anteaters shot 73.5% from the free-throw line last season, and Starring and McNealy both shot just 62%. That has to improve across the whole team.

Wilder fouled out six times last season, averaging 3.28 fouls per game. He scored 9.5 points per game and secured 5.7 rebounds per game, leading all returners. If Turner decides to play small with Wilder at power forward, he must adjust the game plan and shift Wilder to small forward or guard in the event that he’s in foul trouble. He’s too valuable to lose in a tight game.

Starring, McNealy, Wilder and Flowers combined for 22.9 of the team’s 75.3 points per game last season and shot 39.1% from the field, compared to the rest of the team’s 43.7%. Veterans and freshmen alike must step up and hit their shots. In preseason practices Wilder, Flowers and freshman Collin Woods have been nailing jumpers with ease. Let’s see what they can do when there’s a Cal Baptist jersey in their faces at the Bren on Wednesday night.

The four returners made 35.5% of their three-point field goals last season, which was identical to the rest of the team’s season average. They must continue to make their shots, distribute the ball well and get their freshmen teammates involved early.

Big games:

UCI opens the regular season on Nov. 11 at No. 24 California . Turner will face Coach Mike Montgomery for the first time. According to ESPN.com, Montgomery will return to the bench after recently undergoing bladder cancer surgery as a now cancer-free individual. Turner has the utmost respect for Montgomery, who had hired Turner as his assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors and at Stanford University.

“That’s a tough assignment (playing Cal),” Turner said. “It’s hard to describe the respect I’ve got for him as a coach. He’s somebody whose career I want to emulate.

“We’re going to face a veteran team in Cal with really high expectations this year and it’s hard to do that with a young squad, but we’re going to go out and compete. We’ll have some things that we’ll try to do to disrupt them, just like they’ll have some things to attack us. It’s not much different than any other game.”

Irvine will also face Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge on Dec. 15 and No. 17 UCLA at the L.A. Sports Arena on Dec. 20. Long Beach State comes to Irvine for the rivalry matchup on Jan. 2, Fullerton is in town on Jan. 21 and the Anteaters will face UC Riverside on Homecoming Night at the Bren on Jan. 28.

Anteater Insight:

Freshman Collin Woods’ take on the team: “There’s definitely a lot of expectations. We have a young team, but there’s a lot we have to work with. It’s really exciting though. We’re all really good players, so it’ll be really interesting to see how we come together as a team this season.”

Wilder on playing Cal next week: “They’re a college team. They do the same things we do. They come out and practice just like us. They’re no different from any other team. We just need to play hard and do the things we’ve been working on.”

Coach Turner on team chemistry: “What I’m hoping is that as time goes on, this team will come together more than we were able to do over the course of last season, because that’s the one thing that I look back on and I know that we had to be better about.”

Predictions:

Davis will lead the Anteaters in scoring and rebounding. Woods will impress with his shooting, penetration and vocal skills. UCI will lead the conference in scoring for a second straight season and will make improvements defensively but will struggle to find cohesiveness early in the season.

Despite losing their three top scorers, the Anteaters will finish 13-18 for the second straight season. A mid-season slump will rock the boat, but will not tip it. The team will work out the kinks and finish the regular season strong before losing in the first round of the Big West Tournament.

Putting things in perspective:

At a Big West Conference school that has never experienced the madness of March, youth is an obstacle. There’s a difference between recruiting Anteater freshmen point guards (Aaron Wright and Collin Woods) and Calipari’s prototypes (Derrick Rose and John Wall). Until the day UCI makes consistent NCAA Tournament fields and attracts four-star recruits, having eight freshmen will be a challenge. For now, Turner has the youngest team in the nation, but you won’t catch him making any excuses.

The last time UC Irvine’s men’s basketball team had a winning season, President George W. Bush was still in office and freshman guard Collin Woods was a sophomore in high school—in 2008. With fresh faces in blue and gold this season, the team’s abundance of youth could very well become a profusion of experience in 2014. This year, they could be sloppy, they could be surprisingly successful, or they could flirt with a little bit of both; but what’s most intriguing is witnessing players with raw talent gaining experience and learning to play as a team.