Coach Russell Turner and juniors Michael Wilder and Daman Starring talk to the press after their loss on Friday in the Big West Tournament semi-finals. (Zotcubed)

As you all know by now, the 2011-12 season ended last Friday in Anaheim when UCI fell to Long Beach State 68-57 in the Big West Tournament semi-finals.

The Anteaters came out confident and firing on all cylinders, storming out to a 9-0 lead. Chris McNealy continued his strong play, and Daman Starring had one of his good shooting days. Michael Wilder also played to the best of his capacity, shooting the 3-ball so well that 49er fans were shouting for their team to not let him shoot. But in the end, UCI was simply over-matched against this senior-laden Long Beach State team, even without Larry Anderson. The 49ers are a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament which begins tomorrow (in earnest anyway… the First Four games have already been wildly entertaining), and it’s a position they’ve earned through several four-year players and a very tough schedule.

So with all of that being said, let’s give out a few awards and take a look toward next year.

Most Valuable Player: Adam Folker

Let’s face it. Without Folker, this team is largely screwed in the post. I can’t imagine Will Davis II, Mike Best and Wilder having to handle the opposing team’s big trees down low for 40 minutes a game. Besides this, Folker was often deemed as the guy who gave the most effort and had the most competitive spirit by Turner—all very important leadership qualities to have from your oldest guy on the team. This award can also double as most inspirational, as many doctors even advised Folker to retire from basketball due to the severity of his hip injury that he had to work back from.

It should be exciting to see what Folker can do with a full off-season of health and time to improve his game. The Canadian center really found his offensive niche late in the season, making a very high percentage of his shots because he only took high percentage shots right next to the basket. With his rebounding and defensive intensity never in question, Folker’s free throw touch is the one major area he can improve on for next season.

Heart and Soul of the Team Award: Michael Wilder

Mentioned for his hair and his 3-point shot during broadcasts, Wilder is impossible to miss on the court. But besides developing into an unlikely 3-point specialist with an undeniably awesome hair cut, Wilder kept on doing the same things that he’s been doing since first stepping foot on UCI’s campus. Wilder gives it his all game in and game out, battling for rebounds against significantly taller post players, drawing chargers, diving for loose balls and driving into the lane despite not being the fastest guy. He does this all with a smile on his face and a humble attitude that is hard not to like.

Most Improved: Derick Flowers

A case could be made for McNealy, who probably improved the most from season’s beginning to season’s end, but the award goes to Flowers by a slim margin. After largely being a non-factor his first two seasons at UCI, Flowers deserves credit for his much improved 3-point shooting and (mostly) better intangibles to play the point. Instead of only going for the highlight reel play (which he still had in his repertoire), Flowers was able to score when the team needed some lightning fast points as well as dish out a decent number of assists. Although he still had a turnover problem and general inconsistency, there is at least confirmation that Flowers can be a solid contributing piece for his senior year.

Most Disappointing: Kevin Mulloy

This has to go to the guy who was kicked off the team without ever playing a game for UCI. It wouldn’t be as bad if he were some new recruit that quickly flamed out; the fact that UCI essentially wasted two years of scholarship on Mulloy without any return is what really disappoints me. He was pretty highly regarded coming out of high school, and showed pretty decent athleticism and a nice mid-range jumper in practice. We’ll see if he is able to latch on somewhere and re-emerge at the D-I level ala Joe Eberhard at Sacramento State.

Best Potential for the Future Award: Will Davis II

It’s clear that Davis is very raw in many aspects, but it’s also clear that the athleticism and beginnings of an impact player on both ends of the court are there. It should be exciting to see how Davis develops during his time in Irvine. While the dunks are nice, a few more low post move options would be a nice touch. Obviously, size and bulk will be important too, but that can be said for most guys on this team.

Most Surprising: Travis Souza

A case can be made for Mike Best here as well, but Souza wins due to his status as a walk-on. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised after seeing guys like Emil Kim and Patrick Rembert earn playing time in recent years, but it is worth noting that Souza in many regards became more relied on than fellow freshmen (and scholarship players) Collin Woods and Marcus Bradley. I think the fact that Souza had a year at a prep school helped him in this regard. As the team hopefully gets deeper and stronger in the coming years, it will be tougher and tougher for Travis to see as much time on the floor.

A Look to Next Season

All told, the 2011-12 season hit expectations fairly dead on. In some sense, they actually exceeded the dead last prediction of the preseason coaches poll. However, they also couldn’t win enough to avoid hitting the dreaded 20 loss mark. One bright sign for the future was UCI putting together an excellent effort to upset Cal State Fullerton in the first round of the Big West Tournament. It’s the first time UCI has advanced since 2008, and something the Anteaters were never able to do when a certain Eric Wise was part of the team.

The thing that has been harped on all year is that this UC Irvine team has no seniors, and thus has the potential to return everyone for a second go-around at the Big West. So far the new recruits for next season are guard Alex Young (early period) and center Conor Clifford (unofficial verbal). If everyone else comes back and keeps their current status, UCI will have no more scholarships to give for 2012-13. Don’t be surprised if something opens up though. The seniors for next season: Folker, Flowers, Starring and Wilder.

Thanks for reading along this season. If there is no Zotcubed for the 2012-13 season, hopefully we can look back at this year and see how the foundation was set for better years down the road.