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New Look, Same Style: Men’s Basketball Aim to Regain Big West Title

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Coming off a season where they earned their most wins in program history with a 28-10 record, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team looks to reload, not rebuild, after losing five seniors and the irreplaceable presence down low of 7’6 big man Mamadou Ndiaye.

For the first time in years, the ‘Eaters will lack a roster full of season veterans as they welcome in seven true freshman to the team and one transfer to the program. The newcomers include Eyassu Worku, Tommy Rutherford, Evan Leonard, John Edgar Jr., Justin Wertner, Brad Greene, Adam Liberman, and Utah State transfer Elston Jones. Alongside the new additions are redshirt freshmen Max Hazzard and Darrian Traylor, who sat out last season and are ready to take over key roles this season.

“We’re young right now, so all of these guys have come into our program wanting to be a part of something good here that they see and now they’ve got to figure out how to do that,” said seventh year head coach Russell Turner, “We’ve got a long way to go with all that’s needed for young guys to learn and function well with the way we do it.

In addition to the new personnel on the court is a few changes to the coaching staff, as long-time assistant coaches Ali Ton and Nick Booker left the program in the offseason. Coach Turner has promoted former UCI player and director of administration Michael Wilder to an assistant coach position.

“We’re not that new on the floor coaching because I’ve elevated Mike Wilder, who played for me, so he knows a lot about what I expect and is really good at passing on the coaching information that we need him to do for our young guys,” said Turner.

Turner has also brought in former Montana and Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor to his staff, who has an impressive resume with over 20 years of coaching Division I basketball. Taylor has won a total of 380 games as a head coach and has reached the NCAA tournament twice during his tenure at Montana.

“Really only one new coach is what we’ve got and that’s Blaine Taylor who has worked with me before at Stanford, so he and I know one another which is a great benefit,” said Turner, “Blaine has been a championship head coach at [a] university a lot like UC Irvine… so he adds a different perspective and different specific skills that we’re having to adapt to but he’s really good at what he does.”

Last season, the ‘Eaters failed to get the results they wanted in the postseason as they fell to conference rival Long Beach State, 77-72, in the semifinals of the Big West Conference tournament and came up short in the CIT championship game against Columbia by a score of 73-67. This year’s trio of seniors Luke Nelson, Jaron Martin, and Ioannis Dimakopoulos were a part of the squad who qualified to NCAA tournament in the 2014-2015 season and hope to use their experiences of both winning and losing to lead their team right back into the tourney for their last year.

“We lost our first year, we won our second year, and we lost last year so the fourth year we have to win, right?” said Nelson, “It’s all motivation. We know the pain of losing and the joy of winning and we want to avoid the pain and find that joy again.”

The ‘Eaters lost four of their five starters last season as Alex Young, Mike Best, and Dominique Dunning graduated last year while Ndiaye left school early to pursue his dreams of playing professional basketball. With Nelson being the only returning starter, the ‘Eaters will need some of their returning players to rise up to the occasion. Being named a captain heading into his senior season, Martin (who averaged 8.3 points last year) will look to be paired up with Nelson to handle the backcourt duties. Sophomore Jonathan Galloway, who garnered 2.7 points and 3.7 rebounds off the bench last season, is expected to join Dimakopoulos to solidify the front court for the ‘Eaters. Sophomore Brandon Smith, who started in five games last season, and Spencer Rivers both hope to assert themselves with a boost in minutes this year.

“Guys are competing and everybody is trying to assert themselves into a meaningful role in the team but I always ask guys not to compete against one another but to compete with one another,” said Tuner, “What we’re trying to figure out now is not only who deserves to play but also how the players we have fit together and those are two real different questions and ones we’re going to figure out more once we start playing with other people.”

Perhaps the player with the biggest shoes to fill is the 7’2 center Dimakopoulos. Despite being the backup to Ndiaye last season, Dimakopoulos averaged about the same amount of minutes and earned 5.2 points and 2.6 rebounds a game. Dimakopoulos offers a variety of different skills as Ndiaye as he possesses a three point shot in his arsenal and can distribute the ball with guard-like skills. The biggest question with Dimakopoulos is his how he handles the pressure of being the biggest key in coach Turner’s big style of play with the ball consistently being played inside-out.

“He’s not a replacement but I think Ioannis kind of feels some pressure with everybody expecting him to do X, Y, and Z,” said Turner, “I thought he had a really good year last year in a lot of ways and we need him to continue to build on that. We don’t need him to be Mamadou, we need him to be the best version of himself that he can be and I’m excited to see how that goes for him. I’ve never seen him more committed and motivated than what I’ve seen from him so I have every reason to expect he’s going to have his best year.”

UCI’s offense will be primarily run through Nelson, who received the nod for All-Big West First Team last season and led the team in points and assists. Nelson, who averaged 13.7 points a game in the 2015-2016 campaign, has been voted to Big West preseason all-conference team and looks to have an increased role in handling the ball, alongside Martin, with UCI’s all-time assist leader Young graduating last year.

“I’m really looking forward to the pressure we’re going to have on the court,” said Nelson. “This year, we have to play off each other. We’re going to find the matchup and attack the matchup depending on who is guarding us, and that’s going to be fun for us. We’ve got to be on the same page and be in sync and that is going to make our team more dynamic with not just one guy handling the ball.”

There are no easy games for the young ‘Eaters, as they will be thrown into the fire in the non-conference part of the schedule, facing three teams who played in the NCAA tournament last year in Arizona, Cal and South Dakota State. UCI begins the season playing three of their first four games at home, welcoming in Utah State (Nov. 11), South Dakota State (Nov. 14) and former Big West foe Pacific (No. 19). The ‘Eaters are scheduled to participate in the Sanford Pentagon Showcase during Thanksgiving weekend and play South Dakota State, Milwaukee and East Tennessee State. With a chance to defend their title at the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational on Dec. 21, the ‘Eaters will square up against Akron and have a potential matchup against Maryland Eastern Shore or host team UTEP. The ‘Eaters conclude their non-conference slate against Life Pacific at home before revving up for Big West Conference play.

“Our nonconference schedule is a difficult one … but the philosophy about that is layered, as we want to test our guys, but also need to somehow build some confidence going into conference play, and that’s hard to do with the model that we’re following because we’re playing a really demanding schedule that high level recruits want to play,” said Turner.

The always-competitive Big West is set to have another down-to-the-wire season with new teams improving to challenge the consistently good teams at the top.

Serving a postseason ban this season, defending tournament champion Hawai’i enters the season with 10 newcomers and aims to develop their squad for seasons to come. Voted to finish first in the Big West in the preseason polls, Long Beach State returns four of their five starters from last season and is scheduled for a grueling nonconference slate playing the likes of North Carolina, UCLA, Louisville and Kansas. CSUN, led by fourth-year head coach Reggie Theus, is predicted to finish third in the conference with his top five scorers and welcomes in four Division I transfers. The Gauchos of Santa Barbara lose six seniors from last year’s squad and look to lean on the backcourt duo of junior Gabe Vincent and senior Eric Childress for leadership. Fresh off a training camp tour in Costa Rica this past summer, UC Davis comes ranked fifth in the preseason polls and is determined to use their experience in the offseason throughout the year. Cal State Fullerton, which finished last in the Big West last season, returns with valuable pieces in sophomore Khalil Ahmad and senior Tre’ Coggins (who both earned preseason all-conference honors) and are hopeful to compete in the conference. Both UC Riverside and Cal Poly round out the conference and have the ability to pull off some upsets during conference play.

“I think every year that I’ve been here, the Big West has been fairly balanced … so I think that at this stage, there are a lot of teams that think they can win it and probably can,” said Turner. “We’ve been picked as the favorite each of the last three years, so we’re not going to be picked that way this year. It’s going to be a little bit different of a role for us.”

The ‘Eaters begin their season with an exhibition game against Sonoma State for a 2 p.m. tipoff at the Bren Events Center.