With a 6-5 record heading into Thursday's nonconference clash at UCLA, most would say the Anteaters, under first-year coach Russell Turner, have performed better than preseason expectations.
Even more encouraging would be the fact that junior Eric Wise, a two-time second-team all-conference performer who led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists in 2009-10, has played a full game in only one of those wins.
The Anteaters, in fact, have scarcely had three of their top four big men to this point. Wise strained a hip-flexor in the second game at USC, played sparingly the next game, then sat out six of the next seven. He returned to the starting lineup Saturday at Pepperdine, but had just six points and two rebounds in 17 minutes before fouling out of the 76-69 setback.
Adam Folker, a 6-8 junior who most consider the team's best rebounder, has missed the first 11 games after breaking his hand in an exhibition game.
Maxime Chupin a 6-9 freshman from France, has yet to gain his eligibility. Chupin has not practiced with the team in weeks due to NCAA restrictions, but he impressed in early workouts with his effort, competiveness and ample skills.
It was hoped that word on Chupin's eligibility would be handed down last week. But the holidays might delay the verdict, which may or may not be good news.
UCI was picked to finish sixth in the nine-team Big West, as defending regular-season champions Santa Barbara and Long Beach State were followed by Pacific in the top three spots.
UCSB, Long Beach and Pacific still figure to be the most formidable title contenders. The Gauchos (5-4) have victories over Fresno State and then-No. 22-ranked UNLV.
Long Beach (5-7) has had the conference's most imposing schedule, including a win over Iowa. The 49ers have also lost to North Carolina, San Diego State, Clemson and then-No. 22-ranked Washington.
UC Riverside, which visits UCI to open conference play Tuesday at 7 p.m., is joined by Cal State Fullerton and UC Davis with four wins apiece. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal State Northridge are both 3-7, but Cal Poly pushed then-No. 10-ranked San Diego State before falling, 51-45, on the road Dec. 13, and fell at Cal, 51-41, Saturday.
After facing Riverside, UCI plays host to Loyola Marymount on Dec. 30, before playing host to Cal State Fullerton on Jan. 5.
The 'Eaters will then get a strong test with conference dates at Long Beach State (Jan. 8) and at UCSB (Jan. 13).
Turner's energetic style has produced the Big West's top scoring team (75.8 points per game) and the Anteaters also lead the conference in scoring margin (plus 4.5 points per game) and field-goal-percentage defense (.399). UCI is No. 2 in the Big West in three-point percentage (.382) and three-point percentage defense (.297).
The aforementioned front-court depletion has left UCI last in rebounds allowed (38.5 per game) among Big West squads.
Individually, senior Darren Moore has carried the load. The 6-foot-3 guard is third in the Big West in scoring (16.9 per game) and field-goal percentage (.536). He leads the conference in steals (2.2 per game) and ranks fifth in rebounding at seven per contest.
Senior point guard Patrick Rembert, who shares captain duties with Moore, has also been solid. His three-point-shooting percentage (.474) ranks third in the conference, just ahead of teammate Derrick Strings (.457).
Rembert's 12.4 points per game are second on the team and he leads the 'Eaters with 33 assists and 18 three-pointers, while contributing 3.9 rebounds per outing. He had 10 points and 11 boards at Pepperdine for his first career double-double.
Sophomore Daman Starring, a transfer from Centenary, has stepped up his game of late. In the three games prior to Saturday, he was 17 of 24 from the field (70.8%) and had averaged 15.3 points. He is averaging 8.1 points for the season.
Freshman Chris McNealy has also shown flashes of brilliance. He is averaging 7.5 points, equaling the scoring output of senior Pavol Losonsky.
Russell has referred to sophomore Mike Wilder (6.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game with just seven turnovers all season) as the heart and soul of the team. His intangibles transcend the stat sheet.
Wise's six points Saturday gave him 1,002 for his career, making him the 20th Anteater to surpass the 1,000-point plateau. The public-address announcer at Pepperdine initially credited Wise with a basket tipped in by a Waves rebounder, that would have been an inauspicious 1,000th point. But Moore was correctly credited with the basket, allowing Wise to reach the milestone with the second of two free throws early in the second half.
The UCI women's basketball team's encouraging 7-4 start puts them second among Big West teams in victories thus far, trailing only 8-2 UC Davis.
Coach Molly Goodenbour's squad, the revamped roster of which includes only one notable contributor from the previous coaching regime, is led by junior Mikah Maly-Karros, as well as senior point guard Jade Smith-Williams.
Maly-Karros, whose unavailability due to illness hampered the 'Eaters in a 75-67 setback at Eastern Washington on Wednesday — UCI's only loss in its last eight contests — is averaging a double-double with 18.8 points and 10.2 rebounds.
Smith-Williams is averaging 13 points and four assists per game.
UCI, which has benefited from first-year contributors Jacquelyn Marshall and Kassandra McCallister (transfers from San Diego and Oregon State, respectively), added yet another piece in 6-1 junior forward Tayler Champion. The Oregon State transfer had eight points and seven rebounds in her UCI debut Saturday, a 60-39 home win over Loyola Marymount.
UCI, picked to finish sixth in the preseason conference poll, is home today at 1 p.m. against Portland, the final nonconference tune-up before opening Big West play at UC Riverside on Jan. 31.
The Vanguard University women's basketball program, which has earned Golden State Athletic Conference titles in seven of the last eight seasons, including the last two, will have its hands full adding to that impressive achievement this season.
Coach Russ Davis' Lions (5-3) and ranked No. 9 in NAIA Division I, are in a five-way tie for first place in the GSAC with a 3-1 conference mark.
Also on top of the standings are No. 7-ranked Biola (8-2), which thrashed Vanguard, 76-49, at Biola on Dec. 11; No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific (9-2); No. 17 Cal Baptist (9-3); and unranked The Master's (8-2).
Vanguard resumes conference play at Westmont on Jan. 4. It plays host to Cal Baptist on Jan. 8.