A look at the upcoming season
A seven-foot-tall, 268-pound freshman walked around Crawford Hall shirtless last Thursday with toes to the sky, just after a brutal three-hour basketball practice. When the UC Irvine men’s basketball team runs wind sprints, Conor Clifford always comes in last, but he’s starting to catch up. Fresh out of an ice bath, Clifford smiled at Coach Russell Turner as he gingerly made his way across a walkway to the bathroom.
“A couple of months ago, he wouldn’t have walked around out here with his shirt off,” Turner said. “[Conor] has done a great job of improving his body. He’s made tremendous strides in his conditioning and he’s just going to keep getting better.”
Clifford was one of 22,077 freshmen students admitted to UCI this fall, and one of three on his team. 55.7 percent of, or 12,297, students admitted were Asian-Americans, just like Clifford. Coach Turner is excited for the possibilities that Clifford brings from grabbing rebounds, to his dedication in the classroom, to filling up seats at the Bren Events Center at an institution that features a supermajority of Asian-American students.
“He’s a wonderful kid to work with every day, because he’s really smart and really committed,” Turner said of Clifford, a few minutes after razzing him and sophomore Mike Best for needing cleaner haircuts.
“[Clifford] is not a guy that’s a seven-foot project, he’s a guy who was a seven-foot productive player in high school last year for a good team, and he has the chance to be a seven-foot productive player as a freshman this year.”
Out of Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach, Clifford will see action this season as a backup center to senior Adam Folker, who will likely help mentor the seven-footer as his post game continues to improve.
Two and a half hours after starting practice last Thursday, Clifford was one of four Anteaters with hands on their knees, coughing sporadically as the drills continued.
“Quit feeling sorry for yourselves for being tired, let’s execute!” Turner shouted.
“I expect all 16 of you guys to make an even better effort when you make a mistake, not to hang your heads,” Turner said later in practice.
Last year, as one of just nine teams playing without a senior — of the 338 NCAA Division I basketball teams in the nation — the Anteaters finished with a 20-loss season for the first time since 1999.
In Turner’s two seasons at UCI, the Anteaters are 25-39, but there’s a reason why the Anteaters have been selected to finish third in the Big West Conference preseason media poll: the veteran presence of seniors Mike Wilder, Adam Folker, Derick Flowers and Daman Starring, along with junior Chris McNealy.
Wilder is a preseason first-team All-Big West selection as the active Big West leader in points (762), assists (162), field goals made (223), three-pointers made (152), free-throws made (164) and minutes played (2,321).
“They say in baseball, he’s a five-tool player. Well, Mike Wilder is our five-tool player,” Turner said. “He can do everything. He can guard five positions. This year he’s stronger, a better athlete, he’s gotten faster and we’re going to use him more as a perimeter player. We’re lucky to have him. He’s the type of guy you want to line up with.”
Also providing veteran leadership is Starring, who, along with Wilder and McNealy, started all 32 games last season. Starring averaged 11.4 points and 4.2 rebounds, while playing just over 32 minutes per game last season.
“Daman is the best communicator we have on the floor. I asked him to be a scorer early on last year and I want him to expand on that now,” Turner said. “He’s playing well and has a bunch of different ways he can score. There [are] times when I think he plays too unselfishly. That’s not a criticism, it’s just his personality; he’s a very giving teammate. So getting him to assert himself more consistently is his challenge.”
McNealy returns for his junior season, having added significant muscle definition in the gym over the offseason. In the team’s final five games last winter, McNealy averaged 16.6 points, including a 24-point outburst in the team’s first round Big West Tournament win over Cal State Fullerton.
At center, Folker isn’t just healthy, he’s in prime condition. Folker scored a career-high 28 points against Cal State Northridge last February, and had a career-high 15 rebounds against Seattle University in January. Turner is pleased to have his big man practicing with the team prior to the season for the first time in three years.
In years past, the best players haven’t always had the best attitudes for the ’Eaters. Wilder, Folker and Starring aren’t only Turner’s most productive players; they’re also his hardest workers and best role models.
“The way [Folker] lives his life is perfect for a student-athlete,” Turner said, also mentioning Folker, Wilder and Starring as having exemplary nutritional habits and work ethics.
Last season, the Anteaters crawled out to a 2-9 start. Playing small without Folker, who was recovering from hip surgery and with Fresno State transfer forward John Ryan redshirting, the Anteaters were forced to put a 6-foot-2-inch guard in Wilder at the power forward position. The luxury of having Clifford, a healthy Folker and Ryan active allows Coach Turner to swing Wilder back to his natural position at small forward, while using 6-foot-10-inch forward Mike Best off the bench at small forward to utilize his sharpshooting three-point shot and size as an advantage.
Along with Clifford, the Anteaters welcome freshmen Alex Young and Ege Mala.
Mala is a 6-foot-7-inch forward from Turkey. Just 17 years old, Mala nearly recorded a perfect score on his Math SAT. After showing up to camp out of shape, Mala has started to catch up and adjust to Irvine.
“He’s going to be fine,” Turner said. “He’s a great kid and a strong student. He moves well as a perimeter defender and is a great shooter.”
Out of the three freshmen, Young is most likely to start for the Anteaters this season. A point guard from Phoenix, Oregon, Young plays bigger than his 6-foot, 175 pound frame suggests. At a log-jammed position, Young might start over senior Derick Flowers and sophomore Aaron Wright at some point.
“Alex is a physically strong guard, especially for a freshman,” Turner said. “He’s got a toughness about him too, and he’s an excellent defensive player. He fits real well with what we do best and he makes us better in some ways on the defensive side; he gives us a new element.”
But don’t count Flowers out.
“Flowers deserves recognition,” Turner said. “At one point I started a freshman in front of him last year. A lot of guys would have folded up on that, and he didn’t, he just fought and fought and fought. I know he’ll keep doing that. He’s playing with confidence right now and when he’s confident, he’s really good.”
Against Cal State Northridge last year, Flowers ignited for a career-high 21 points, earning Big West Conference Player of the Week honors. He averaged 7.8 points per game and led the Anteaters in assists and free-throw percentage last season.
“It doesn’t matter to me [who starts],” Turner said. “What matters is we’re going to be able to put an effective five guys on at the start of the game and at the end of the game, and it won’t always be the same guys. I’m not looking to have 20 different starting lineups, but I don’t want to just have one either; different matchups require different things.
“I’m going to ask a number of different guys on this team to make sacrifices this year, because we’ve got so many players throughout our team who can play. That’s a good problem to have.”
Aside from point guard, the most intriguing position battle will be fought between John Ryan and Will Davis II at power forward. Ryan shaped up considerably in his redshirt transfer year. He looks poised in the low post and has range with his jump shot.
Davis broke the Anteaters’ single-season blocks record last season as a freshman. Coming off a knee surgery, Davis looks more athletic than he was late last season, which is saying something. While his shooter’s touch is a work in progress, Davis can handle the basketball, slash to the basket and finish strong. His highlight reel dunks and electrifying swats will make him a fan favorite once again this season.
As Turner hinted, different matchups will call for different rotations. Expect the Anteaters to take advantage of Davis’ athleticism against quicker teams, and Ryan to team with Folker in the low post against methodical opponents.
Selected to finish third in the Big West in the annual preseason Big West media poll, the Anteaters will likely take a lump or two early on in a tough, non-conference schedule. But come playoff time, expect the Anteaters, along with Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, to be vying for a Big West Tournament title and the right to dance at March Madness.
Notable matchups: UCI vs. Nevada on Nov. 10; at UCLA on Nov. 13; UCI vs. LSU on Dec. 18; at USC on Dec. 20; UCI vs. Hawaii on Jan. 9; UCI vs. UCR on Feb. 13; UCI vs. Fullerton on Feb. 16; UCI vs. Long Beach State on Mar. 2.
2011-12 record: 12-20 (6-10 in Big West), eliminated in Big West Tournament semifinals.
2012-13 prediction: 20-15, eliminated in Big West Tournament finals.