First-year coach Russ Turner has a vision for UC Irvine men's basketball that includes becoming a power in the Big West Conference, a noteworthy mid-major program that competes in the NCAA Tournament, and also capturing a market share of the Orange County sports landscape.
What he has now, however, is the second-best team in the city.
The Anteaters' 86-76 exhibition loss Friday to neighboring Concordia, an NAIA power, was the second straight to the Eagles, for whom former Anteater Justin Johnson was Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year last season.
But Turner, who spent the last six seasons as an NBA assistant with the Golden State Warriors, after 10 combined seasons as an assistant at Stanford and Wake Forest, has been working doggedly since he was hired in April to help awaken a UCI program that had slipped below mediocrity under 13-year coach Pat Douglass.
Douglass guided UCI to two regular-season conference titles and three straight 20-win seasons from 2000 to 2003. But his final seven seasons produced a 102-114 combined record, including 14-18 last season, that led to his departure.
In steps Turner, a former two-time All-American at Division III Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, where his 2,272 points still rank No. 1 in school career annals. He signed a five-year contract and inherited a roster with a dozen returners but, some might say, a dearth of Division I talent.
The marquee player is 6-foot-6 junior Eric Wise, a two-time second-team all-conference performer who led the team in scoring (16.3), rebounding (6.5) and assists (3.0) as a sophomore, only the second UCI player ever to do so.
Back also are senior guards and co-captains Darren Moore, who started all 32 games last season and averaged 11.2 points and 4.6 rebounds, and Patrick Rembert, who started 15 games as a junior and averaged 5.4 points.
Eight additional returners (Brandon Scott is redshirting) bring modest credentials and ability, but Turner was able to bring in a trio of newcomers who could bolster the rotation.
Damon Starring, a 6-4 sophomore guard, averaged 11.7 points last season at Centenary College in Louisiana, where he ventured out of El Toro High.
Maxime Chupin, an energetic 6-8 freshman, was lured from France, where he helped his Cholet club team win the French League championship and he had previously played for the under 18 national team. Chupin, however, is awaiting eligibility clearance by the NCAA, with no word on how long that process might take.
Chris McNealy, whose father Chris played three seasons in the NBA after starring at San Jose State, is a 6-4 freshman guard who was named all-state and NorCal Preps Division I Player of the Year last season at San Ramon Valley High in Danville.
Adam Folker, a 6-8 junior forward-center, and Pavol Losonsky, a 6-9 senior, started nine and 10 games, respectively, last season and will be counted upon to play a bigger role up front.
Wise, a skilled offensive player whose body control, strength, agility and shooting touch make him a versatile inside-outside threat, is the centerpiece of an offense that Turner hopes will run at an accelerated tempo.
Increased defensive pressure, including full-court presses and half-court traps, is another point of emphasis for Turner, who saw his team create 32 turnovers in a 77-52 exhibition win Tuesday over Division II representative UC San Diego.
But Turner and his staff, including holdovers Doug Oliver and Ryan Badrtalei, are clearly still evaluating just how their personnel will facilitate their systemic changes.
"Clearly the way I want to play is different from what they did last year and [Douglass] played that way for a reason," Turner said. "There is an adjustment period that the players and coaches will have to go through. But I do think the guys are excited about the things we've introduced to them and the ways that we'll ask them to be aggressive and pushing their skill level. Time will tell whether we can be effective doing that. I want to commit to that long term, even if we are not as effective this year as I hope to be."
Junior guards Derrick Strings (2.9 points per game last season) and Jonas Lalehzadeh (who started three games as a sophomore walk-on), as well as sophomore guards Derick Flowers and Mike Wilder (21 three-pointers and four starts as a freshman), could also contribute.
Senior forward Emil Kim and 6-9 senior center Peter Simek might also get an opportunity to chip in.
Kevin Mulloy, a 6-7 forward out of Oxnard High, is projected to redshirt, but Turner said that could change if Mulloy's toughness is required to supplement a potential rebounding shortfall.
UCI, picked to finish sixth in the Big West preseason poll, opens the regular season Monday at No. 13-ranked Illinois. The first regular-season home game is Nov. 19 against Navy and the nonconference schedule also includes dates at USC (Nov. 13) and UCLA (Dec. 23).
The conference opener is Dec. 28 at home against UC Riverside.
"The challenge I have before me is a tough one and every day we're trying to climb the mountain that is before us," Turner said. "We know success is not going to be easy for our program, but every one of the guys on my staff and on my team are excited to try to get there."