UC Irvine finally rid itself of the 1992-93 basketball season Friday, tossing a jumbled memory of turnovers, injuries, suspensions, and 21 losses toward the waste basket like a crumpled-up stat sheet.
Coach Rod Baker was conducting one of the final post-mortems when someone asked if he could say anything positive about the season that was.
"Yes," Baker said. "It's positively over."
Baker's first Irvine team a year ago did more with less. His second did the opposite, stalling out with six victories, one fewer than last year and only one more than the 5-23 season in 1990 that was the worst in school history.
"I would not wish this year--no, that's not true--I would wish this year on a couple of people," Baker said. "But there aren't very many people I'd wish this kind of year on, and I'm talking about from a coaches' standpoint and a players' standpoint."
The Anteaters, picked to finish fifth in the Big West Conference, instead finished in a three-way tie for last. The expectations might have been unrealistic for a hodge-podge group of transfers and youngsters, but Baker had them, too. Before the season, he looked at the schedule and counted the games he thought could be won.
"I honestly thought we could have gotten 17. I was being optimistic, which is very unlike me, but I was being optimistic," Baker said. "I underestimated some teams, and obviously I overestimated ours."
The team had three obviously talented players in seniors Jeff Von Lutzow and Keith Stewart and junior Lloyd Mumford. But Von Lutzow ended his career without ever quite shaking his tendency to play erratically, Stewart and his jump shot disappeared from time to time before he became academically ineligible at the end of the season, and Mumford had 122 turnovers to go with his 151 assists.
Irvine's best players were flawed, and there was no cohesiveness to make up for it. Of the top seven players, five were new. Injuries and suspensions kept the starting five in flux--Baker started 11 different lineups--and only Mumford played in every game.
It was a team that never jelled, and when Baker tries to pick apart what happened, he criticizes himself.
"I was too soft," he said. "I firmly believe I was too soft with this team, in terms of how demanding I was to perfection. That was what was wrong with it. I didn't get enough from them."
Last year's team so clearly had little talent, Baker begged them for every scrap of effort. This year, he didn't get it, but he didn't ask for it as insistently, either.
"I prepared them differently this year than I did last year. I went in a different direction with some things, and it just kind of got away from me," Baker said. "I went away from one of my basic tenets of coaching, in that you should not underestimate what you can actually get out of the human body. Given the proper preparation, given the proper building process, you can get a lot more out of the human body than you'd think."
The defensive intensity that startled Bren Center crowds last season after watching Bill Mulligan's teams for years was not the same this year. Baker preaches man-to-man principles, but, by the end of the season, the Anteaters' best defense was a zone, and so they played it often. Next year, he says, the Anteaters will play in people's faces again.
"Definitely," he said. "We will."
Baker's first year at Irvine seemed full of purpose, but the second had its fits and starts. The second, in fact, seemed more like his first year than the first.
"It's been almost like I've had two first years," Baker said.
The foundation he tried to lay last year didn't hold up this year with so many new players. But new players are what keeps a team going, and the late-season performances of freshmen Todd Whitehead and Shaun Battle are two of the reasons Baker can stomach looking ahead, just days after his worst record in seven seasons as a head coach, including five at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
"It's almost like the next day, after you're done, things have almost freshened up a little bit, and you're almost teased into wanting to start again, like today," Baker said. "I know I can't do that. I know physically and emotionally I can't do that. I'm just teased, like that adrenaline that you have when things don't go well and you want to make them better. We couldn't do anything with the group here, but now we can have a brand new group. If someone said you could start tomorrow, you'd get kind of pumped up by that. I don't think I could do that, but I'm teased by it."