First in an occasional series of articles looking at the Southland’s Division I basketball programs.
Last season was one of happy firsts for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team.
The Anteaters won their first Big West Conference tournament championship and made their first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Yet, guard Alex Young’s lasting memory tortures him still.
The scrappy Anteaters trailed heavily favored and fourth-seeded Louisville, 57-55, and Young had the ball in his hands in the final seconds of a first-round NCAA tournament game.
But as Young crossed half court, he lost control of his dribble for a turnover. Game over.
“I can’t even think about how well we played during that game,” Young said. “The only thing I can think about with Louisville is that last play. To me, it’s been a nightmare.”
To Coach Russell Turner, it was something else: a teaching opportunity. Instead of avoiding the topic, he still talks about it occasionally with his team because, he said, “I expect that experience will help us if we can put ourselves in position to be there again.”
The way the coach looks at it, you can’t focus on the negative of that one play without acknowledging the many positive developments that led to Irvine being in position to knock off a nationally ranked team.
“That’s the thing I take from it, that when the time came for us to perform under the bright lights,” Turner said, “I thought we were ready, and I think we could’ve won.”
Turner is in his sixth season at Irvine, which opens its season Saturday when it hosts UC San Diego in a nonconference game. When he arrived, Irvine was typically a middle-of-the-pack Big West Conference team. Now the Anteaters, seeking their fourth consecutive 20-win season, are the media’s pick to win the conference title.
“Coach Turner has done an excellent job of changing the culture around here, and bringing in guys that want to be a part of that change,” Young said. “He’s put UCI on the map, because it wasn’t really known for basketball.”
Turner and his staff have been creative, recruiting players from all over.
Mamadou Ndiaye, the Anteaters’ 7-foot-6 center, is the only Irvine player with a national profile, largely because of the publicity he generated before last season’s NCAA tournament appearance as the tallest player in college basketball. He was discovered in his native Senegal, brought to Southern California to polish his game in high school and signed with Irvine after playing at Huntington Beach Brethren Christian High.
Irvine also has guard Luke Nelson, who was a top high school player in England when he met Ali Ton, an Anteaters assistant, during a tournament in Macedonia. He was recruited largely over email and Skype.
Turner said Irvine’s recruiting philosophy has been “taking some chances on some talented big guys and utilizing their improvement and a style of play that keeps three ball-handlers on the floor with them.”
The Anteaters have four players 6 feet 10 or taller, which is actually collectively smaller than last season’s team, which had three 7-footers. Ndiaye, a redshirt junior, is back after a breakout season in which he averaged 10.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
But where Irvine is deepest is at guard, where the Anteaters return Nelson, a junior who averaged 10.5 points and four assists last season, and Young, a senior who averaged 9.4 points and 3.6 assists.
“I say all the time now that they’re championship guards,” Turner said. “They fit really well together on both offense and defense. They both are improved through the work that they’ve done this summer.”
Junior Jaron Martin and seniors Dominique Dunning and Aaron Wright are expected to be other key contributors in the backcourt.
Young said he sees an upside in Irvine’s guards largely operating below the radar.
“Teams don’t focus on us quite as much because they have to worry about a guy like Mamadou,” he said. “All the guards on this team, we know how valuable we are.”
So, while Ndiaye and Irvine’s collective size is likely to draw most of the attention and dominate opponents’ scouting reports, Irvine’s ultimate success relies on achieving proper symmetry between its backcourt and frontcourt.
“We know what we’re capable of; we know we’re a big team,” Nelson said. “Our guards play off our bigs and our bigs play off our guards.
“It’s not necessarily big or small carrying the load, it’s that we’re all carrying each other.”