After making history last season by winning the Big West Conference Championship and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history, the UC Irvine Men’s basketball team looks to dance again for the second consecutive year.
By nearly pulling off an upset bid against the fourth seeded Louisville in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 57-55, the Anteaters left their mark as the team to look out for in the college basketball world.
With the media buzzing for UCI to do damage and return to the tournament this season, sixth year head coach Russell Turner stresses a need for his team to steer away from complacency and to remain motivated amongst the national attention.
“There’s a confidence that comes with having endured some of [last year’s] challenges and I want that confidence to be constructive [and] not one that weakens us or makes us complacent”, said Turner.
Receiving preseason nods from various media outlets, such as CBS and NBC Sports, the Anteaters are now favored in the Big West as the team to beat and will appear on national television at least 20 times this season.
“We just stick together and eliminate those distractions and really focus on the things we have to do in order to have another successful year,” said senior point guard Alex Young, “ That’s the most important thing, to really just focus on ourselves and not let anything get in our way.”
The always competitive Big West conference should be no test to overlook for the ‘Eaters. With the graduation of Alan Williams, who led the nation in rebounds for two consecutive years, UC Santa Barbara will be guard oriented with senior Michael Bryson, who averaged 14 points a game last season, leading the backcourt for the Gauchos. Hawaii, who the ‘Eaters faced in the final of the Big West tournament, return their core group of players — with the exempt of lone senior Garrett Nevels graduating last season. After shocking everyone in the Big West and earning a number one seed in the conference tournament, UC Davis will need to have new faces step up after losing four seniors last year, most notably guard Corey Hawkins, the Big West player of the year last season. UC Riverside looks to make some noise this year with seniors Taylor Johns, who averaged 16 points and eight rebounds a game, and Jaylen Bland, averaging 16 points and five rebounds last season, leading the way for the Highlanders. A young Long Beach State team looks to bounce back from losing their five starters last season and battle a tough non conference schedule including UCLA, Arizona and national champions Duke. With third year head coach Reggie Theus at the helm, CSUN aims to continue their run in the conference including a Big West tournament finals appearance two seasons ago. Teams like Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton could also surprise some teams in the conference with their gritty style of play.
Not much has changed for the ‘Eaters while they enter as the experienced team in the conference including five seniors (Alex Young, Mike Best, Aaron Wright, Dominique Dunning, and Shawn Ray) and the return of junior center Mamadou Ndiaye. Eleven players of last year’s team will return for the 2015-2016 campaign to have another shot at making a deep run in the postseason.
“We’re one of the most experienced teams in the conference and I think having that experience is going to help us a lot this year.” said Young, “Having guys who played in big games […] is going to give us a huge advantage going into this season.”
With Will Davis II (former Big West tournament MVP and first player to ever average a double double in three games of the Big West tournament), Travis Souza, and John Ryan graduating last year, the team looks to have familiar faces step up and continue to contribute to the team’s success this season.
Entering a solid year off the bench maintaining a 45% shooting average, junior center Ioannis Dimakopoulos looks to be the number one backup in the paint for his fellow seven footer Ndiaye. Redshirt freshman Jonathan Galloway will contribute with his athleticism and 6-10 frame to complement senior forwards Shawn Ray and Mike Best, rounding out the bigs for the ‘Eaters.
The backcourt is as stacked as ever with redshirt freshman Spencer Rivers, senior Aaron Wright, junior Jaron Martin, senior Dominique Dunning and sharpshooter sophomore Haroldas Saprykinas looking to relieve for the duo of Young and junior Luke Nelson.
Martin, who averaged 6.6 points off the bench, contributed when Nelson suffered a facial injury last season, most notably scoring the game winner against Long Beach State on the road. Wright and Dunning, both fifth-year seniors, look to make a bigger impact this season with Souza’s starting role up for grabs.
Four new faces have been added to the team with freshmen Darrian Traylor, Brandon Smith, Haitham Chehabi, and ESPN 2-star recruit Max Hazzard.
“We’ve got an experienced group [and], talentwise, this is the best team I’ve ever been a part of”, said Young.
Keeping the underdog mentality, the ‘Eaters will take on a tough non-conference schedule to look forward to with games against Boise State, Saint Mary’s, Utah State, Oregon, and Kansas. The ‘Eaters will also be part of the Wooden Legacy tournament on Thanksgiving weekend which includes five teams who competed in last year’s NCAA tournament.
“It’s the best, you get to play the best competition and our coaching staff has done a great job of scheduling these games for us and allowing us to go out there and show the country that we can compete with anybody,” said Young.
Having been able to compete with some of the nation’s best last season, the ‘Eaters are in foreign territory as opposing teams are starting to recognize and plan before playing UCI. While maintaining the dark horse mentality, coach Turner realizes that they have a target on their backs.
“It’s a duality”, said coach Turner, “A lot of people are pegging us as the favorites but I’d like us to think we’re like underdogs [and] we’re going to have to remain underdogs to continue to be who we are”.
Hungrier than ever, the ‘Eater want to add to their recent success and use last season’s result as motivation for more.
“All of our players believe that we have a chance to be much more,” said coach Turner. “I think that our mentality is that we’re going to make it again and we want to advance.”
The long awaited season will open up with an exhibition game against Vanguard on Nov. 7 at the Bren Events Center.
“The goal is always to win those three games in three days in March, that’s our goal every year,” said Young, “but now that we’ve gotten a taste of the NCAA tournament … let’s make a run.”