Faulkner: UCI opens title quest

Polls are tools some college basketball coaches use for whatever task they deem most important at the time. A favorable ranking can boost confidence, yet prompt a warning against complacency, while a snub can add to the motivational fire for any program.

The UC Irvine men's team earned the top preseason ranking in the Big West, placing the proverbial target on the Anteaters' backs as the team to beat.

But UCI's favorite status has been altered somewhat as the opening of Big West Conference play looms on Thursday. The Anteaters (9-7) are still considered among the teams that could contend for a regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

But the strong starts of Hawaii (11-3) and UC Santa Barbara (9-4), as well as the emergence of UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb at Long Beach State (4-10), has added to their credible cases for eventual supremacy in the nine-team conference.

UCI Coach Russell Turner, for one, has no illusions about any weight the preseason poll may carry. When asked after Saturday's final nonconference tuneup against San Diego Christian, a 91-56 home win, if the 'Eaters deserved to be ranked No. 1 if a new poll were taken before Thursday, Turner did not mince words.

"I don't know and I don't care," Turner said, "because the great thing about college sports is that it gets decided in the rectangle. We'll have a crack at that, beginning Thursday."

UCI opens at three-time defending conference champion Long Beach State, for which a poor record is somewhat misleading. The 49ers, who include Lamb, a 6-foot-5 junior guard (20.8 points per game in his four games since becoming eligible), and returning first-team all-conference honoree Mike Caffey (16.9 ppg), a 6-0 junior guard, have sustained losses to Arizona, Michigan, Kansas State, Washington, North Carolina State and Missouri.

The game tips off at 8 p.m.

"I'm surprised by people who are critical of Long Beach because of its record," Turner said. "They are a really good team and anyone who doesn't know that is foolish."

Turner was also asked what he was most pleased about heading into conference play.

"I think we're a lot closer to understanding who we are now," Turner said. "I think that has been the biggest challenge with the schedule we've played, which has allowed us to be exposed for some of the things we don't do well. We've got to be aware of our turnovers and taking care of the ball. We've got to be able to adjust defensively to the consistent things teams have done against us. And we've got to be a team that rebounds at a high level on both the offensive and defensive ends. We haven't been a great offensive rebounding team, but we've been shooting a good percentage [49%]. We have to be able to win when we don't shoot well or play well offensively. If we can defend and hold teams to a low number, we can scratch out wins, and that's important when we play conference teams that are well-coached, play smart and have outstanding effort and game plans to go against us."

Hawaii is paced by 6-8 senior Christian Standhardinger (17.8 ppg), who earned first-team All-Big West recognition a year ago. The Rainbow Warriors have won four in a row entering their opener at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and boast the conference's greatest home-court advantage due to the fatigue and distraction that travel to Hawaii induces.

UCSB, coming off a down year (7-11 in conference in 2013), has the conferences most dominant player in 6-7 junior Alan Williams, who leads the conference in scoring (23.5 per game) and rebounding (10.7 per contest). Williams, a first-team all-conference performer as a sophomore, has already been named Conference Player of the Week three times this season.

UCI, with arguably its best lineup since future NBA players were captivating fans at Crawford Hall under then-coach Bill Mulligan, is paced by 6-8 junior Will Davis, who leads the team in scoring (12.5) and rebounding (7.4) and is shooting 61.7%, third among Big West players.

Cal State Northridge (8-7), under first-year coach Reggie Theus, enters Thursday at 8-7, while Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside, also playing under new coaches, are both 5-9 thus far.

Northridge is led by junior guard Stephan Hicks (17.6 ppg), who was the conference's Freshman of the Year in 2012.

Fullerton is paced by 6-2 senior Michael Williams (15.2 ppg), a transfer from San Francisco who earned first-team All-West Coast Conference honors with the Dons.

Riverside, which plays host to the Anteaters on Saturday at 7 p.m., is led by Australian senior center Chris Patton (12.8 ppg) and always seems to play UCI tough.

UC Davis' roster includes 6-3 junior guard Corey Hawkins (17.1 ppg), an Arizona State transfer who was first-team all-conference last season. But Josh Richart, a 6-9 senior, is averaging 17.3 points and shooting 56.2% from three-point range for the Aggies (5-10).

Cal Poly, which finished third last season, is 4-9 and enters conference play on a four-game losing streak. The Mustangs are paced by 6-7 senior Chris Eversley (14 points and 7.2 rebounds per game), who was firs-team all-conference as a junior.

•The Vanguard University men's basketball team, off to a 13-2 start, its best in recent memory, opens Golden State Athletic Conference play on Tuesday at San Diego Christian at 7:30 p.m.

Coach Rhett Soliday's Lions are among six GSAC teams that are at least 11-3, but appear equipped to make a run at a top-four finish.

No. 6-ranked Arizona Christian (13-1), No. 12-ranked Concordia (14-1) and No. 22-ranked Hope International (11-3), are playing well, as is The Master's College (11-2) and Westmont (11-3).

Biola is 9-6 and San Diego Christian is 3-5.

The Lions are led by senior guard Preston Wynne (17.6 ppg), junior guard Chris Gorman (15 ppg), junior guard DeAngelo Jones (12.6 ppg), 6-8 freshman Cal Poly transfer Zach Allmon (9.9 ppg and 6.8 rebounds per contest) and junior Keith Mason (9.5 ppg and 5.3 rpg).

•Orange Coast College opens its Orange Empire Conference men's basketball season on Friday at Irvine Valley at 5:30 p.m.

Coach Steve Spencer's Pirates (6-11) are led by 6-4 sophomore guard Devaun Evans (15.6 ppg), 6-5 freshman forward Noah Prouse (12.3 ppg) and freshman guard Brad Buchignani (10.7 ppg).

Irvine Valley (15-1) and Saddleback (14-3) are the OEC favorites.

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