Men’s Basketball Column

The ’Eaters need to surpass Hawaii, Pacific, and no. 1 Long Beach State to finish on top and to take the Big West Conference.

After having a great run in last year’s Big West Conference tournament, losing to Long Beach State in the semifinals in a close game, there was only one thing in everyone’s minds: I can’t wait to see the Anteaters play next year. We were all confident that the 2013 Men’s Basketball team would make it in the March Madness for the first time ever. Many believed that this team would actually dominate the Big West, considering the strong team chemistry and leadership abilities.

The first four games of the season definitely got everyone excited about the squad this year. Beating Nevada on the season opener, barely losing to UCLA by a point and then completely dominating Pacifica and Liberty; this team gave me the hope that they have the potential to compete in the NCAA tournament.

Yet, after having a 3-1 record on the season for the first four games, things began to go downhill. They went on a four-game losing streak, going below .500 in the standings with a 4-5 record, and ever since then, all of their games have been going back and forth with wins and losses. The Anteaters are now 6-4 in Conference and 12-11 overall.

Part of the reason why the team has not been performing as well as expected is because of their unproductiveness on the road. Their home record is 8-1, which is absolutely terrific; however, their away record is 3-9, which is not as impressive. Whether it is the pressure of the crowd from other schools booing in their ears or the nervousness they get from not playing their opponents on their home court, something has to change.

The men also struggle to make their free throws. They are averaging 64 percent from the line, and for a team average, it could be higher. Not only are they missing their free throws, but they are also missing easy open shots. The team all year has had a difficult time putting the ball into the basket.

On the other hand, the Anteaters have been doing very well on grabbing boards and passing the ball around, as they are 21st in the nation in rebounding and 11th in the nation in assists.

While the ’Eaters might struggle on offense, their defense has been solid, and they do a fantastic job forcing other teams to shoot difficult jumpers. UC Irvine now needs to match the productivity of its defense with its below par offense — they need to make baskets.

While there are things that need to be addressed, there is a good possibility that the team still has the capability to take the Big West Conference. As the team is fourth in the Big West standings and only three games behind the first place team, Long Beach State, I still have faith and believe that this team has what it takes to win the Big West Conference tournament.

Last year, UCI was the seventh seed of the Big West standings with a 6-10 record in conference with a 12-20  overall record, yet they were able to upset Cal State Fullerton in the quarterfinals before losing to Long Beach State in a very close and heartbreaking finish. As the Anteaters have improved this year to the fourth seed in the standings, I have no doubt that they have the tools to climb the Big West rankings.

Just as I was excited about this year’s team and had great expectations, I am enthused and have even greater expectations for next year’s squad. The UCI Men’s Basketball program has officially recruited three talented players, including two twin towers for next year.

The Anteaters have signed Luke Nelson, a 6-foot-3inches tall point guard from Great Britain who played for the English under-18 team last summer, averaging 17 points, six rebounds and four assists.

UCI has also recently signed 7-foot-2-inches tall Greek center Giannis Dimakopoulos, who is currently attending Los Angeles Cathedral High. He was a star of the Panathinaikos U-18 team in Athens that won the Greek U-18 title in 2011-2012.

And then, there is Mamadou Ndiaye, a 7-foot-5-inches tall Huntington Park Brethren Christian School center signed on to attend UCI two days earlier than the Dimakopoulous signing. According to 2013 ESPN 100 Recruiting Database, Ndiaye is ranked 79th in the nation and The Rivals 150 by Yahoo! Sports ranks him 84th in the nation. He has also been projected by many to be an NBA star and has been mentioned as a potential lottery pick in the past. As a high school junior, he averaged 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.

This is arguably the most anticipated signing in UCI history, as we obtained a player who has proven himself both offensively and defensively thus far. With his remarkable height, he’ll positively contribute with rebounds and getting the ball in the paint. He also has an impressive set shot, passing ability, capability to face up and attack, shot blocking prowess and willingness to rebound. Not only that, coach Russell Turner, once an assistant coach at Wake Forest  who helped the development of NBA star Tim Duncan, will have a hand in Ndiaye’s growth as a player.

As I am excited to see how the ’Eaters fare in the Big West and in post-season play, I am looking forward to welcoming the new recruits. Next year’s young squad will be led by lone senior Chris McNealy, as the ’Eaters will say goodbye to four seniors after this season. Even with such a young team for the 2013-2014 season, UCI will be a force in Big West play. UCI men’s basketball demands to be taken seriously.  They only get better and better.