Colleges: Balance a theme in Big West Conference men's basketball

At 7-7, the UC Irvine men's basketball team is breaking even. It took overtime, of course, to produce the Anteaters' seventh victory of the season on Saturday, and "even" may be the theme in the Big West Conference, which tipped off with five games Saturday.

Four games among Big West rivals were decided by 10 or fewer points on Saturday, with the lone exception being UCI's 68-57 overtime conquest of visiting UC Davis, which managed just one field goal in the final 10:33 of action, including a scoreless overtime session.

Even may be the operative word in the Big West this season, with none of the 10 teams having stepped forward as a definitive favorite.

Cal State Northridge came into conference play with a 9-3 record, but fell, 74-71, to Hawaii.

One national media outlet named UC Santa Barbara as its odds-on favorite to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. But the Gauchos lost to Cal State Fullerton, 86-79, Saturday and are now 4-8.

Only two Big West teams take winning records into Thursday's conference schedule and both of those 7-5 squads — Cal State Fullerton and Hawaii — will square off at 9 p.m. in Honolulu.

UCI plays five of its next seven conference games on the road, beginning with its Central Coast swing against UCSB (Thursday at 7 p.m.) and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (Saturday at 7).

Coach Russell Turner's Anteaters were picked to finish third in the preseason poll and rank atop the conference in rebounding (43.6 per game), scoring defense (62.4), field-goal percentage defense (.360), three-point percentage defense (.275), assists (16.8) and blocked shots (5.0).

UCI senior Daman Starring, the 'Eaters' leading scorer at 13.5 per contest, ranks second in the Big West in three-point percentage (47.2% on 53 attempts). Sophomore Will Davis leads Big West players with 2.1 blocks per game, while freshman point guard Alex Young is second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5 with 50 assists and 20 turnovers).

The Big West is ranked 15th among 32 conferences, plus independents in the latest Ratings Percentage Index breakdown, which lists UCI at No. 145 among 347 schools.

The rest of the Big West is as follows on the RPI list: Northridge (59), UCSB (86), Long Beach State (116); Pacific (146), Cal Poly (196), UC Davis (219), Hawaii (247), Cal State Fullerton (270) and UC Riverside (345).

UCI has played four teams in the top 54, topped by UNLV (13) and including UCLA (43), Southern Mississippi (50) and LSU (54).

One area of concern for UCI has been free-throw shooting. It is 60.9% as a team (179 for 294), but seniors Adam Folker and Mike Wilder, as well as Davis, are a combined 30 for 82 this season (36.6%). Folker, the only Anteater to start all 14 games this season, has missed 30 of his 40 attempts from the line.

The UCI women's basketball team (4-8) opens Big West Conference play on Thursday at home against UCSB (4-8).

UCI, under first-year coach Doug Oliver, has won two of its last three, including a 66-52 triumph at Cal State Bakersfield on Saturday.

The Anteaters, 2-8 in their last 10 conference openers, have been led by junior point guard Jennifer Tsurumoto (11.2 points per game) and 6-foot-1 junior post Camille Buckley (10.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game).

Both Buckley and sophomore Methlyn Onogomuho had double-doubles at Bakersfield. Buckley had 19 points and 15 rebounds, while Onogomuho had 12 points and 11 boards.

UCI is 0-4 at home this season.

The Vanguard University women's basketball team completed its preconference season 9-0 and is ranked No. 3 in NAIA Division I. Coach Russ Davis' Lions open Golden State Athletic Conference play on Tuesday at home against San Diego Christian at 5:30 p.m.

Vanguard, led by junior guard Nicole Ballestero (20.7 points per game, which ranked No. 4 nationally through Jan. 1) and senior post Esther Timmermans (14.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per contest, the latter ranking No. 5 in the nation), may go unbeaten in the regular season.

The Lions' biggest tests in GSAC play include No. 4-ranked Westmont (at home on Jan. 15 and on the road Feb. 5) and The Master's College (at home Jan. 29 and on the road Feb. 19).

The Vanguard men's basketball team, off to a 10-4 start and on a four-game winning streak, opens GSAC play Tuesday at home against San Diego Christian.

The Lions, led by junior guard Preston Wynne (17.9 points per game), and senior forward Ennis Whatley Jr. (17.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and shooting 63.2% from the field), are hoping to make a title run.

Westmont is ranked No. 5 in NAIA Division I and perennial GSAC power Concordia is ranked No. 19.

The Orange Coast College men's team (9-6) opens Orange Empire Conference play at home Friday against Riverside at 7:30 p.m.

The OCC women (9-7) play host to Riverside on Friday at 5:30 p.m. in their conference opener.

The OCC women are led by freshman guard Dayanara Armenta (17.9 points per game).

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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