Great expectations follow Adam Parada like the long shadow he casts.
As the first 7-footer to sign with the UC Irvine basketball program, Parada drew attention the moment he stepped on campus. The Anteater faithful have awaited a major impact on the court.
Nearly three years have elapsed and they're still waiting. As the only true center in the Big West Conference this season, the junior from Alta Loma was supposed to be a dominant player. Yet, Parada remains an enigma, equally capable of brilliance and befuddlement.
When second-seeded Irvine (19-8) plays seventh-seeded Cal State Northridge (14-14) tonight in the first round of the three-day conference tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center, Parada's performances could make or break the Anteaters' chances of gaining an elusive NCAA tournament berth. His play could decide whether the Anteaters make any postseason plans at all.
"When he's going good, he's been unstoppable in league," Irvine senior forward Jordan Harris said. "It changes the whole complexion of the game. You have to double-team and triple-team him."
Instead of a breakout season, it has been one of transition for Parada. His statistics are solid: 12.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, and a Big West-leading 56% shooting percentage. But the reality is the skilled big man hasn't been what everyone expected, including himself.
"Being on the second team [in conference], that's a disappointment for me personally," he said. "I wanted to be a first-team player."
As the Anteaters looked to replace Jerry Green, the two-time conference player of the year, Parada became the main offensive option.
That role became an albatross. He fouled out in four of the first seven games. His interior defense was lacking despite having a size advantage against nearly every opposing center. The more he tried to impress pro scouts, the worse he played.
"At the beginning of the season, I felt like every game was like a NBA tryout," Parada said. "Everything was being closely watched....I was putting more pressure on myself than I should have been."
For every game that showed the promise that arose from his sophomore season, when he averaged 12.4 points and seven rebounds, there have been others that have been perplexing.
After a season-opening performance against Big 12 power Oklahoma in which he had 19 points and seven rebounds, Parada had six points, no rebounds and fouled out the next night against Western Michigan. He had a career-high 28 points against Loyola Marymount in the fourth game but failed to reach double figures in five of the first seven games.
The low point came Dec. 22 against St. Mary's. Parada, having lost his starting job to Greg Ethington, made one basket and picked up five fouls in eight minutes.
A day later, he was reassessing his place in the program.
"I wasn't having any fun in the game," he said at practice this week. "But I had a talk with my coach and I talked with my family. I just cleared my mind of all that stuff."
Irvine Coach Pat Douglass sentenced Parada to the bench for four games. But he doesn't blame the player for all of the early-season struggles.
"For two years, our offense was based on getting Jerry the ball," Douglass said. "We were learning what Adam needs to be successful.
"I think he's been more active the last 15 games. He's been rebounding with two hands and he's been a bigger presence on the defensive end."
Scouts are intrigued by Parada because of his skill level for a center. He has a soft touch that extends to the free-throw line and has a good sense around the basket. He's also making a career-best 77% of his free throws.
Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said guarding him is a chore.
"We don't have a guy that can defend him, especially with his size and skill level around the basket," Braswell said. "When Parada gets going, it just adds a whole different dimension for that basketball team."
There are signs the giant is awakening. Last Saturday, he had 24 points and 13 rebounds for his fifth double-double in a dominating 95-60 conference victory over Long Beach State. The Anteaters won eight of nine games to end the regular season and Parada averaged 13.9 points and 7.8 rebounds in that stretch.
Moreover, he has fouled out of only one game since the St. Mary's debacle.
"I think I've been playing pretty well, especially in the second half of league," Parada said. "When I get more than 10 shots a game, I think I'm able to show what I can do."
Point guard Jeff Gloger said the team needs Parada to play big this weekend.
"He has the potential to be a dominant player in this league," Gloger said. "There have been flashes where he's shown that and there have been other times when he hasn't, but he's no different than any of us that have come out flat at times.
"The most important thing is that he comes with the intensity and desire to be the most dominant person on the floor."