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UCI’s Biggest Comeback Will Come off the Court

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“Pretty much everybody that’s at the top [of the Big West conference] is gone besides Kayla [Williams] … The way we recruit is to get ready for the following year … The transfer portal is a beast,” UCI Women’s Basketball head coach Tamara Inoue said after UCI’s heartbreaking loss to Hawai’i in the 2022 Big West Tournament Championship game on March 12.

Fast forward nearly two months later, redshirt freshman star point guard Kayla Williams announced she had committed to play basketball at USC after a brief period in the transfer portal. Williams had a stellar season leading the Anteaters in points, assists, three-pointers made and minutes played. She certainly earned the opportunity to upgrade from the Big West conference to play in the Pac-12. The problem is, she wasn’t the only one who played their last game in Irvine.

Starting sophomore guard Jayde Cadee and sophomore forward Sophia Locandro also announced their entrance into the transfer portal. Their announcement leaves the Anteaters without three of the five starters that got them to the Big West championship game. 

The transfer portal epidemic was not just limited to the women’s team, as four players on the men’s team entered “college free agency.” Starting junior forward Austin Johnson committed to North Carolina A&T, reserve junior guard Isaiah Lee committed to Sacramento State and two reserves — redshirt sophomore center Emmanuel Tshimanga and sophomore forward Hunter Ruck — entered the portal as well. Paired with the graduation of superstar redshirt senior forward Collin Welp, the Anteaters now have a fraction of their frontcourt heading into next season.

Most of these players played integral roles on their respective teams and led them to win records. On the women’s side, Cadee provided valuable shooting and was second on the team in three-pointers made, and Locandro was an inside presence and defensive anchor. For the men, Johnson was a finalist for the Lefty Driesell Award, which is given to the best defensive player in college basketball; Lee was a defensive spark off the bench while being fourth on the team in three-pointers made; and Tshimanga was third in rebounds — just behind Johnson.

UCI’s basketball programs will have to do their own recruiting and player development if they expect to replace the production of the departing players. The women will begin next season without three starters and the men without two. Both have lost most of their frontcourt depth. However, the loss of players speaks to a larger issue.

In the new era of athlete empowerment and NIL, college athletes can transfer programs without having to sit out for a year. Without consequences, players can leave for any other program that will accept them. There are many reasons why a player might leave their program, including lack of playing time, promises of more exposure or simply wanting a fresh start — especially after the 2020 “COVID-19 season.”

Despite having a Division I basketball team in Southern California near the beach, these factors are not always enough to convince players to stay at UCI. The lack of sports culture at UCI plays a large role in this. The Bren Events Center was consistently half-empty during the season. Attendance for men’s basketball games peaked at Senior Night with 2,480 in attendance, still less than half capacity. Attendance was even lower for women’s games, despite having a more successful season. Mid-major colleges like UCI need the support of their students if they ever want to retain their star players.

Obviously, the lack of fans isn’t the ultimate reason why UCI’s players decided to leave, but the student body has not provided a welcoming home to its student-athletes, who represent UCI on a national level. It seems like the title of “Division I” has fallen on deaf ears, and the students do not recognize the privilege of having a prestigious, nationally competitive basketball team on campus. The players who have already committed to other teams are not necessarily playing on “better” teams, with the exception of Williams. Both Lee and Johnson are transferring to other mid-majors, and time will tell for the other former Anteaters. While students and spectators ultimately cannot control what these players do, they can change their support for their school’s basketball team. 

Walking around campus, there are very few posters highlighting the talented student-athletes across all sports, let alone basketball, the most popular sport. The administration sees how nonchalant the student body is about athletics and as a result, they don’t promote school sports. This is evident by the outdated poster of UCI athletes in the Anteatery. All of the athletes on the poster have already graduated, and the poster itself is in a terrible location, facing the bathroom. It truly is a “catch-22” situation: UCI administration won’t promote sports on campus if students don’t care about them, and students won’t care if administration doesn’t properly promote sports. However, lack of marketing cannot be the only factor deterring students from attending sporting events. After all, they’re free — the magic word that usually guarantees participation among college students. While it is difficult to force school officials to promote their own athletes, students have the ability to simply show up to games.

UCI basketball does have some merits. The continuity with the coaching staff has helped lead UCI to victory, as Men’s head coach Russell Turner and Women’s head coach Inoue have had success with their respective teams for several years in a row. The fan experience during games is great, with many activations and events occurring during game breaks. The marketing team is also active during games, making sure to capture awe-inspiring snapshots. Still, despite these positive aspects and with the details of scholarships and player management unknown to the public, the players cannot be at fault for doing what is best for their careers.

From a basketball perspective, the Anteaters face a plethora of question marks for both squads. Who will provide rim protecting and floor spacing for both teams? Are the freshmen ready to step up? Which players are UCI’s scouts looking to sign?

More specifically, is freshman guard Olivia Williams ready to take on the full-time starting role? She began this past season starting and demonstrated elite shooting, but a COVID-19 case stopped her momentum and moved her to the bench. In the absence of Williams, it seems likely that graduate forward Naomi Hunt and sophomore guard Chloe Webb will up their scoring and freshman guard Nikki Tom will carry the ball-handling duties. Still, the women are at a massive size disadvantage without any returning post players.

On the other side, can Turner adjust his philosophy to become more perimeter-oriented without the post depth? Turner will likely maintain his focus on the defensive side of the ball, as they were a Top 10 nationally ranked defensive squad this past season. Sophomore guard Dawson Baker will carry the bulk of the scoring next season while junior forward Dean Keeler and freshman center Bent Leuchten will have to step up to anchor the defense if the roster remains constant.

College basketball isn’t ruined by any means with the rule changes for transferring students, but it shines light on the schools that are unable to retain players. Currently, UCI has depleted rosters with no depth and conflicted feelings of the handful of students who are sports enthusiasts. It’s time for the transfer portal to now work in UCI’s favor — but then again, the transfer portal is a beast.

Angus Wong is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at anguscw@uci.edu.