Faulkner: 'Eaters clearly on rise

More than anything, the UC Irvine men's basketball season that ended Monday in Oklahoma was about a body of work.

Specifically, the 2012-13 Anteaters, coming off three straight losing seasons, capped by a 20-loss campaign in 2011-12, produced 21 wins in a school-record 37 games. There was also the program's first postseason appearance since 2002.

Coach Russell Turner's third season included an unbeaten home conference record (9-0), a trip to the Big West Conference Tournament final and a first-round home win in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. The 21 wins, including nine in the last 12 games, tied for the third-best single-season output in the program's 48 seasons. UCI's 11 regular-season conference wins were the most in 10 seasons.

The team was led by a senior nucleus of Daman Starring, Adam Folker and Mike Wilder, but featured breakout performances by sophomore Will Davis and freshman Alex Young.

And while the coaches' preseason poll picked UCI to finish third in the Big West (it wound up fourth, three games behind Long Beach State, which it defeated twice in three meetings, including the conference tournament semifinals), it could be argued that most of this year's success came virtually out of nowhere.

Such an argument, however, would neglect to recognize the pathway of perspiration left behind by this unit, which returned virtually intact from the aforementioned season of struggle one year prior.

More than once, Turner, whose relentless positivity and competitive zeal continue to point the program in the right direction, choked back emotion when discussing the cumulative contributions of his seniors.

Starring, a second-team all-conference performer, led the team in scoring (12.9 per game) and shot 40.7% from three-point range while matching Wilder for the team lead in three-pointers (72).

Folker, one of the most improved players in the conference, averaged 9.3 points, 6.3 rebounds on his way to repeating as the conference's Hustle Award winner.

And Wilder, whose statistics — 8.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest — do not fully reveal his ability to help his team win, led the squad in minutes played (31.1 per outing).

Further, senior Derick Flowers, who lost his starting point guard job early to Young, was a consummate teammate who provided quality minutes off the bench.

The quartet, three of whom were the last links to the previous coaching regime led by Pat Douglass, will be missed as much for their leadership skills as their basketball abilities.

There is plenty of ability remaining, led by Davis, an explosively vertical performer whose 88 blocked shots this season shattered the single-season-record 55 he posted as a somewhat tentative freshman. When Folker was sidelined with a knee injury with two regular-season games remaining, it was Davis, the conference Defensive Player of the Year, who stepped up to become a dangerous threat on both sides of the floor. He finished at 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

In addition, Young, the Co-Freshman of the Year in the conference, established himself as a future star. Young matched junior Chris McNealy at 9.2 points per game and posted a team-best 144 assists with just 55 turnovers while playing more than 28 minutes per game with 29 starts.

Sophomore guard Travis Souza became a reliable member of the eight- and nine-player rotation, netting 28 of 57 three-point attempts (49.1%) and committing just 10 turnovers.

Conor Clifford, a 7-0 freshman, and 6-10 sophomore John Ryan provided promise and frontcourt depth, while freshman guard Aaron Wright and 6-10 forward Mike Best (a medical redshirt who will be a sophomore next season) have shown flashes of potential as well.

This, added to buzz-inducing recruits such as 7-5 Mamadou Ndiaye (27.1 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game as a senior at Brethren Christian High), 7-2 Greek import Giannis Dimakopoulous and 6-3 guard Luke Nelson, from Great Britain, should continue UCI's climb toward contention for the Big West crown in 2013-14.

The Big West, incidentally, lost would-be additions San Diego State and Boise State, as well as Pacific, which is off to the West Coast Conference.

So, Turner will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract with a chance to lead the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Easily something to work for.


Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World