Men's Basketball Preview: 'Eaters have high hopes

An indisputable buzz exists around the UC Irvine men's basketball team this season. Coach Russell Turner and his staff, however, would prefer a purr, the product of the kind of contentment that eventually comes from a championship season.

"It can be a special season," said Turner, a former NBA assistant who enters his third season at UCI with the most talent and depth the program has had in more than a decade. "We've got a long way to go, but it can be special if we do what I think we can as a staff and as a team. It's exciting because we have a couple special young guys."

Special may be too mild a word for 7-foot-6 freshman Mamadou Ndiaye, who is arguably the biggest celebrity on campus after averaging 27.1 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.5 blocks while shooting 77% from the field as a senior at Brethren Christian High in Huntington Beach.

Some project an NBA future for Ndiaye, a native of Dakar, Senegal who is still learning the game.

"He's a fascinating person and player," said Turner, who ventured to Senegal in the offseason to meet the gargantuan center's family. "He's a real joy to coach, but also a challenge because he's so different. He commands tremendous attention on offense because he is really good around the basket. And, defensively, he is a presence. I really couldn't be much more pleased with Mamadou than I am."

That being said, Ndiaye, who touches 10 feet, 3 inches on his tip-toes, may only have a supporting role with an Anteaters squad that reached the Big West Conference Tournament title game and earned the program's first postseason victory (in the tournament) since 1986.

UCI was picked to win the Big West in this year's preseason media poll and several media outlets, and winning its first conference tournament title would mean the program's first NCAA Tournament berth in its 37th season since it joined the Division I ranks.

Will Davis, a 6-8 junior who was the Big West Defensive Player of the Year, and Alex Young, a 6-1 point guard who shared Big West Freshman of the Year laurels in 2012-13, are additional reasons why UCI fans have heightened expectations.

Davis, who emerged as a star late last season, when the 'Eaters won nine of their last 12, made the Defensive All-American team, as well as the Big West all-tournament team. His 88 blocked shots last season broke his own single-season school record of 55 and he wound up averaging 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds. He had 32 points and 14 rebounds in the 80-71 home win over High Point in the first round of the CIT and he has worked hard to add a mid-range game to his inside skills.

"[Davis] is very much improved," Turner said. "But for me, the place he is most better is in his concentration and his desire to be good. That's a big step forward for him. He's always battled inconsistency, but he has shown he has a chance to be a more consistently solid guy who can make plays that make people say 'Wow!'"

Young, whose assist-to-turnover ratio ranked 16th in the nation last year, averaged 9.2 points and 3.9 assists while starting 29 times and playing in all 37 games. He had 144 assists and only 55 turnovers in his first season as a true point guard.

Young welcomes Luke Nelson to the backcourt this season. The 6-3 freshman was named Player of the Year in the top club division in England last season, when he averaged 16.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists.

Nelson, whose play against older competition has prepared him well for the collegiate ranks, Turner said, had nine assists and one turnover in a recent intrasquad scrimmage.

"He's good, he's smart, he's competitive and he has courage," Turner said of Nelson, who just might start. "[Nelson and Young] compliment one another very well. I don't envision either one of them playing a point-guard role like Alex did for us last year. I think they can share that load. And there's nothing that will keep me from playing them both together."

Chris McNealy, a 6-4 guard and the lone senior on the team, will return to the starting lineup after averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds as the sixth man for last season's 21-16 unit.

McNealy and Young are co-captains who will be faced with replacing the strong leadership provided by departed veterans Mike Wilder, Daman Starring and Adam Folker. The three core seniors helped UCI win 13 of 14 home games last season, including all nine in Big West play.

"I think [McNealy's] versatility prevents him from having a defined role," Turner said, "but he's one of our main guys and we need him to utilize that versatility. We need him to defend and rebound, which are two things I'm stressing most at this time of year. If we defend and rebound, those are things that are going to give us a chance to win."

John Ryan, a 6-8 junior center who scored 55 points in 24 games last season after sitting out the 2011-12 campaign following a transfer from Fresno State, has shed a few pounds and appears more able to contribute this season.

Ioannis Dimakopoulos, a 7-2 freshman from Greece who prepped at Cathedral High in Los Angeles last season, has shown greater comfort on the perimeter, where 6-10 sophomore Mike Best may also shine after redshirting last season.

Conor Clifford, a seven-footer who collected 80 points and 54 rebounds in 32 appearances as a freshman, will redshirt this season, Turner said.

Dominique Dunning, a 6-4, 212-pound guard, is a redshirt sophomore who sat out last season after transferring from New Mexico. He could play a large role, Turner said, though preseason injuries have slowed his immediate progress.

"He adds a different dimension, because he is a power player on the perimeter," Turner said of Dunning, who is one of five players battling for the two remaining starting spots not already locked up by Davis, Young and McNealy.

Travis Souza, a 6-5 junior guard, Aaron Wright, a 6-3 sophomore, and Jaron Martin, a 5-10 freshman, should add depth in the backcourt.

Souza shot 49.1% from three-point range last season (28 for 57), while Wright scored 45 points in limited minutes in 2012-13.

Martin, out of Chaminade Prep, averaged 21 points and 6.6 assists and netted 72 three-pointers as a senior last season.

"[Martin] is a little guy, but he's capable of scoring," Turner said. "I'm interested to see how he demands to be played. He has a little bit of that irrational confidence that I like."

Ege Mala, a 6-7 freshman from Turkey who redshirted last season, sophomore guard Reed McConnell, and 6-8 junior Shawn Ray, a transfer from El Camino Community College, round out the roster.

UCI plays Chapman in an exhibition game on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Bren Events Center, before opening the regular season on Nov. 8 at home against Fresno State.

A schedule Turner believes is the most challenging a UCI team has faced in years, includes road games at Washington (Nov. 14), Cal (Dec. 2), Oregon (Dec. 17) and Arizona State (Dec. 28).

UCI begins Big West play on Jan. 9 at Long Beach State.

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