The wait is almost over. Midnight Magic is in the books. UCI handled their exhibition game against Sonoma State with aplomb yesterday afternoon. The quest for a second trip to the Big Dance in three years starts on Friday, November 11.
In the last three seasons, Irvine entered the season as the prohibitive favorite in the Big West, with the trump card of Mamadou N’diaye single-handedly altering opposing game plans and attracting media publicity. This year, Mamadou will be plying his trade in Grand Rapids and Long Beach is the team drawing all of the preseason hype. Seven true freshman and two redshirt freshman provide an influx of new talent, but also plenty of question marks.
Here are the five biggest questions facing the baby-faced Anteaters. If they can answer most of them positively, UCI may just record their fifth straight 20-win season. A more measured take would probably be happy with a record that hovered near .500.
1. Does the front court have enough depth after the loss of Mamadou and Mike Best?
With the twin towers of Mamadou and Ioannis Dimakopoulos holding down the center position, and athletic power forwards like Mike Best and Will Davis II providing additional shot blocking, UC Irvine has taken pride in its front court depth since the ’13-’14 season. Only Ioannis is left from that group.
UCI will lean heavily on sophomore Jonathan Galloway and true freshmen Tommy Rutherford. Galloway flashed some athleticism and potential last year in mostly non-crunch time minutes, but he will have to make a big leap forward in terms of offensive polish and scoring ability as de facto starting power forward. Rutherford comes in with a fair amount of praise, including his uncommon smarts and maturity for a freshman, but how will he fare against big men two or three years his senior? Freshman center Brad Greene may also be in the mix, but Greene picking up four fouls in five minutes in the exhibition is not a good sign. If Turner deems the front court depth too thin to afford redshirting Greene, it may still be difficult for Greene to stay on the court for many minutes each game.
At the very least, the ‘Eaters can rely on Ioannis to be nearly unstoppable at times, not only with his great scoring ability, but also his occasional three-pointer and good passing ability. The question is whether he will be able to put out a consistent quality effort no matter the opponent. He also has never had to shoulder the load of starting minutes before. Hopefully, Ioannis can show significant growth in his final year, like big men Mike Best and Adam Folker before him. Everyone knows that he’s taken enough berating from Turner over the years to learn a thing or two.
Bottom line: Best case: Galloway breaks out and Rutherford becomes an even more impactful freshman big man than WDII, creating an athletic front court that entrenches themselves at UCI for years to come. Worst case: whistle-happy reffing and inexperience plagues UCI with constant foul trouble, forcing UCI to go small. We’ve seen this tactic work with savvy rebounding and quickness compensating for height, but it’s still not ideal against certain match-ups, and it’s a lot to ask from a group of freshman small forwards.
2. Can Luke Nelson and Jaron Martin make the game-winning shots when needed?
This one is simple. Of the returning players, Nelson and Martin are the two guys that the coaching staff trusted with the game-winning shot. Unfortunately, it seemed that almost every time Nelson jacked up one of his off-balance threes from well beyond the arc, he would miss and UCI would wind up losing by a few points. Anecdotally, Martin had more experience hitting the clutch triple, but there were also times where he chose to drive in for a lay-up only to get swatted.
UCI needs both guys to improve in the clutch this season. There is no more Alex Young to draw defenders. Opponents will know to focus on these two with the game on the line, and they will have to rise to the occasion in spite of that.
Bottom line: We have seen Nelson shine with his deadly range and scorer’s mentality, and we have seen Martin rain rainbow threes when defenses leave him open. But can either or both take their consistency an even higher level? When UCI was in a scoring slump last year, you could count on Young to put up points. Someone will have to fill that void this year.
3. How will the defense adjust without Mamadou serving as the rim protector inside?
There was no secret that with Mamadou or Ioannis on the court, UCI was a zone defense team. Guards knew in the back of their head that if they got beat, opposing players would still be hesitant to challenge Mamadou’s height. That mentality will have to be different this year.
Bottom line: Best case, UCI’s overall higher level of athleticism will lead to a stifling man-to-man defense that Turner can switch to when Ioannis isn’t on the court. The added versatility will lead to an overall improved defense, even if we don’t see as many blocks. Worst case, UCI loses its defensive specialty and becomes an ordinary defensive team that doesn’t have enough experience to overcome having to go small for long stretches of time.
4. Which freshman will step up as immediate contributors?
The ’15-’16 Anteater squad is the most highly touted group that Turner has had in Irvine. Guard Eyassu Worku was included in a hype article along with blue chip freshman at UCLA and USC. Guard Evan Leonard and Rutherford are three-star recruits, and redshirt guards Darrian Traylor and Max Hazzard both received multiple offers from other mid-major programs.
Of course, UCI has been able to do great things with players who were originally unheralded, such as former walk-on Martin. In fact, freshman walk-on John Edgar Jr. looks like a good bet to follow in Martin’s footsteps (and Patrick Rembert before him, among many others) as a walk-on who eventually becomes a starter. But it can’t hurt to have some highly touted guys who possibly have a higher ceiling.
Bottom line: Worku received the most minutes of any player in the exhibition. The consensus expects him to be the freshman leading all the rest, but the makeup of this team is such that UCI will need other freshman to step up as well. It’s hard to say who will step up immediately and who winds up redshirting, but it will be exciting to watch regardless. If all works according to plan, this group of young players will grow together and form the nucleus of the next powerhouse tournament team. If we’re really lucky, the freshman will improve enough by the end of the year that the remaining nucleus from the original tournament team can make a return appearance before fully passing the baton.
5. Where will the scoring come from?
This year, the ‘Eaters can no longer fall back on lobbing the ball inside to set up Mamadou’s unstoppable one-handed dunks. Alex Young and his 1,324 career points have moved on to the professional ranks. Mike Best’s picturesque jumper from the elbow has wowed its last Bren Events crowd. Dominique Dunning’s gritty clean-up buckets and Aaron Wright’s patented slash-to-the-basket-get-fouled-then-make-one-of-two-at-the-line game had their moments. It’s a lot of scoring to replace.
It was concerning to see sophomore Brandon Smith take on a three-point shooting role during the exhibition when he only took 24 attempts all last year. Furthermore, the freshman collectively shot 1-14 from three against Sonoma State, and the one make was from true freshman Justin Wertner, whose limited action suggests a potential redshirt season. Nelson did miss the exhibition game with a hamstring issue, and our star guard is anything but gun-shy from three-point land. Still, the team’s ability to supplement Nelson’s volume shooter ways is up in the air.
Bottom line: The Anteaters missed Travis Souza’s sharpshooting last season, and Haroldas Saprykinas’ departure leaves UCI without an obvious replacement for the second straight season. The seniors will get their points, but Turner and his revamped staff will hopefully sort out who else can contribute consistently in the scoring column by conference season. If they can do that, who knows, maybe this group can find some more magic in March.