Mike Wilder and Afro Thunder return to the Bren Events Center soon. / photo courtesy of UCI Athletics

In a bit of unsurprising news, UC Irvine finished dead last in the Big West preseason poll that was released today (of course, the official athletic website is also unsurprisingly surreptitiously hiding this fact, releasing no press release bearing the grim news). This is what happens when your team has eight freshmen, no seniors, and none of its top three scorers returning from last season. Preseason polls are largely based on what the media knows is there, and in college basketball, it’s very hard to know what is there with players that have never played at the DI level. As such, any analysis will also be hard to provide with any sort of authority or legitimacy… I’m sure that at the end of the season at least one or two developments will have emerged that are unforeseen at this time.

My statistically unsupported hunch: The Anteaters won’t finish last. Russell Turner won’t let it happen. The season will have ups and downs, possibly more violently in the downs, but a new era will markedly begin. A few of the freshmen will be bona fide contributors for years to come, and the amount of playing time available to them will help in the long run. I have the ‘Eaters finishing seventh in the Big West, but anywhere from 6th to 9th is possible.

Biggest questions:

Patrick Rembert: purveyor of excessive dribbling and funny facial expressions / (AP Photo/Robert K. O'Daniell)

1. Who will play point? Gone is steady if unspectacular Patrick Rembert (now playing in Slovenia), leaving the door open for junior Derick Flowers, who has largely disappointed at UCI so far in two seasons. No. 0 for the ‘Eaters was the quickest guy on the court often last year, which allowed him to penetrate pretty well. The problem was that once he was in the paint, the big guys would collapse on him, and his lay-up attempt would miss badly. Other times, he would come in and jack up a 3-pointer quickly, and just as quickly be taken out. Generously listed at 6’0, and seen with a walking boot not too long ago, I’m skeptical about Flowers blooming into a starter or solid contributor. Hopefully I’m wrong.

At the same time, it’s notoriously difficult for a freshman to be ready to lead a team in the Big West right away. Collin Woods was a highly touted early period signing who Turner reportedly said would get the chance to play the point, but in high school he was more of a combo guard/shooting guard. (On a side note, UCI seems to always recruit these ‘combo guard’ types. They usually turn out to be not quite good enough to play the point nor quite big enough to play shooting guard… I’m having flashbacks of Trey Harris. Anyway, I digress.) Woods won the Midnight Magic dunk contest showing off impressive athleticism, so his future looks bright, but it just might not be at the point yet. Aaron Wright, another freshman, represents more of a true point guard, and is also listed at 6’3. No idea how his shot will fare though. Last but not least, Turner has in the past mentioned junior Daman Starring as someone who can shift over to the point. However, last season he showed no such ability in limited time in that role.

2. Can Chris McNealy replace Darren Moore’s production? McNealy, the 6’3 guard, was Coach Turner’s lone freshman recruit last season, and a good sign for future Turner recruits. He showed decent athleticism and a nice stroke, along with a sweet tear drop move. At Midnight Magic he looked like he had added some muscle to a previously skinny frame as well. Down the stretch last season, Turner said that he wished he could have played McNealy more, and this season Chris will definitely get his chance. I’m hoping for a Patrick Sanders-esque career where he keeps on improving each season.

3. Have Mike Wilder and/or Daman Starring hit a ceiling? In terms of intangibles and a steady veteran presence, both of these guys provide key known components to this 2011-12 team. But can they improve their game even more? Wilder has been a nice 3-point specialist, but what happens if offenses are keyed in on him? Can he improve his 37.9 percent 3-point shooting or 9.5 PPG? Can the inconsistent Starring return to the 11.7 PPG that he averaged his freshman year with Centenary? Both strike me as solid contributing pieces, but either would surprise me if they emerged as true go-to players/stars.

In one of the fiercest battles ever seen at the Bren, former 'Eater Matt Ballard returned to UCI to take on the one and only Pavol Losonsky.

4. Can anyone come close to replacing Eric Wise’s post presence and production? This is probably the biggest gaping hole UCI faces. Wise was someone that the rest of the team could count on. His iso game sometimes resulted in the big man trying to put the rest of the team on his back, which didn’t always work out so well, but saved the team in plenty of other games. Despite the injuries last season and his sometimes disgruntled demeanor, Wise was a true star and go-to player. Can Will Davis III or Marcus Bradley combine to make up a two-headed Wise? At 6’8, 210, Davis has the athleticism and bounce that Wise lacked, while Bradley fills the girth department at 6’5, 215. Still, UCI will be hard pressed to replace Wise’s savvy and feel for the game. One guy that people may forget–Kevin Mulloy. Seemingly a relic from the Pat Douglass era, Mulloy practiced with the team all season last year, and displayed a nice mid-range jumper in practice. The scouting report describes him as a quasi big-man with an outside shot and the ability to drive, in the mold of Kevin Bland or Pavol Losonsky (a type of player that Douglass loved to recruit too apparently). A solid contribution from him, especially in rebounding, will be highly welcome. In the end, I can’t see interior defense being much worse than last year’s combo of Losonsky and Peter Simek. Pavol was badly miscast as a post player when he really preferred to hang out beyond the perimeter and take three’s, and Simek was too slow to keep up. The results were quick foul trouble and a screaming Turner. I don’t think RT would have recruited guys that had similar ineptitude on defense.

Adam Folker's presence was missed last season. / photo courtesy of UCI Athletics

5. Will Adam Folker be able to return to the court healthy? Amidst all of the uncertainty that surrounds this team, I believe the big man from Canada is actually the X-factor for the season. Folker sat out the entire season last year after suffering a hand injury and then a hip injury that required surgery. It must have been a pretty serious surgery because reports are that Folker still isn’t ready to practice. I have also heard from sources that Folker was never completely healthy during his freshman and sophomore seasons, and that the surgery was much needed. Well after all this time, getting Folker’s rugged 6’9 presence on the court will be huge for the ‘Eaters. Folker backs down from no one on defense, frequently getting in tussles with opposing post players, frustrating them with his defense and willingness to be physical. He was also the team’s best rebounder previously, a trait that Turner values highly. If Folker can return healthy this season, he provides an immediate constant and rock down low for a squad desperate for a post presence. Freshman Mike Best looks agile and nimble for 6’10, but at 200 pounds is much too light to match up with opposing centers. The last ‘Eater to sign with UCI, I could see Best redshirting, and I could see him surprising with his athleticism and outside shot. Only time will tell.

6. Will walk-ons Travis Souza and Reed McConnell see as much court time as Emil Kim and Jonas Lalehzadeh did last year? From the looks of it, both of the new walk-ons were recruited, and both are valuable primarily for their ability to shoot from downtown. If either of them see any sort of extended minutes besides garbage time, it will mean that either the Anteaters are once again scrounging desperately for depth and height (not to take anything away from either Kim or Lalehzadeh), or one of the two actually shoots the three well enough to become an asset offensively. Hopefully it’s the latter.

I will try and post other UCI season previews on here when they come up. For now, check out my former colleague Ian Massey’s piece in the New University for a dose of optimism.