Lloyd (Fudge) Mumford was grinning, well, like a kid in a candy store. UC Irvine’s senior guard and his mates had just wreaked defensive havoc on a weary little band of Aussies--the Brisbane Southern District Spartans--and although it wasn’t as if they had shut down North Carolina, it was still a lot of fun.
“It’s just go, run, jump, reckless abandon,” he said after the 99-61 exhibition victory. “This is how we’ve all grown up playing, so everybody’s playing really hard. Running up on guys. Scaring guys. Trapping all over the place. Just running around wild.”
Coach Rod Baker is hoping there is a measure of method to this mayhem because the Anteaters didn’t scare anybody last season when they blew leads and bickered their way to a 6-21 overall record. Irvine lost nine games by six or fewer points, went 4-14 in the Big West and finished in a three-way tie for eighth place.
Ten players return from that team and Baker has decided to return to his East Coast hoop roots and re-emphasize belly-to-belly defense. Last season’s top scorers, Jeff Von Lutzow and Keith Stewart, are gone, but Baker likes the athleticism and depth of the 1993-94 group.
“It’s a nice feeling when you believe you have the ability to go out and defend people,” he said. “It’s a very nice place to start. We have 10 players with defensive integrity, and by that I mean that it matters to them if the other team scores.”
The Anteaters were first in the conference in rebounding last year and they figure to play intense defense. But can they score enough points and make enough free throws--they shot 63% from the line last season--to win a few of the close ones and approach .500?
Mumford, who started all 27 games last year and set a school single-season assist record with 151, is the leading returning scorer with a 13.8-point average. This season, he will also play off-guard as well as point guard to increase his scoring opportunities. Junior Zuri Williams will play the point when Mumford isn’t.
“I think it will be beneficial for myself and the team,” Mumford said. “It will take a load off me, in terms of having to direct traffic, so I can just go score and rebound. I love to bang but I could never do that at the point because you have to watch for the (fast) break.
“And, of course, I still get to play the point, which I love to do.”
Baker says Mumford’s leadership abilities will be enhanced this year because “there are no reluctant followers,” a remark referring to the lack of cohesiveness displayed last season. He’s also hoping that Mumford, who is often too quick for his own teammates, will be a year smarter and won’t attempt passes that won’t be caught.
“He can do so many things, he’s got so many skills, but there are no extra points for degree of difficulty,” Baker said. “Either you score or you don’t score, you make the pass or you don’t make the pass. Forget everything else.”
Up front, Irvine will be counting on 6-foot-10 senior center DeForrest Boyer, who averaged six points and 6.2 rebounds last season; 6-7 junior forward LaDay Smith (7.3 points, 4.4 rebounds); 6-6 sophomore Shaun Battle who averaged 4.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and was a Big West All-Freshman team selection, and Jermaine Avie, a 6-7 transfer who averaged 12.3 points and 10.5 rebounds at the College of Eastern Utah last season.
“There’s a lot of quickness and athletic ability on this team, but whether or not that translates into offense in a conventional way remains to be seen,” Baker said. “We hope to generate some offense out of our defense, but I think we do enough good things offensively to get some open shots, and if we hit our open shots, we’ll be fine.”
The guys on the perimeter who have to make those shots will be sophomore Todd Whitehead, who started five of the last six games and made 21 of 49 three-pointers last season; junior Elzie Love, who played in 25 games last season, and junior Khalid Channell.
“I think we have a chance to at least move up from where we’ve been the last couple of years because I think the group of guys we have are a little bit fed up with their previous performances,” Baker said. “A lot of players pay lip service to that, but these guys have gone the next step and are willing to put in the extra time to get better.
“And, in pointing fingers, they first point to themselves. It’s, ‘What can I do individually to make this team better?’ ”
He likes the dedication. He likes the work ethic. He likes the chemistry. He likes these young men. But Baker knows the road to respectability is going to be an uphill climb for the Anteaters. They play nonconference games against two teams that made the ’93 NCAA Tournament--Utah and Iowa--and Georgetown, the NIT runner-up. And the Big West big boys--New Mexico State, Nevada Las Vegas and Pacific--seem stronger than ever.
“Every time I think about it, this conference gets tougher,” Baker said. “It gets more and more difficult to go into somebody else’s building and get a win and that’s what makes the Big West so good.”
He won’t dwell on the obstacles, though. This is the time of year for optimism.
“I just think this team has a chance to be something special,” he says.