The usual holiday busy season has prevented me from writing about the last three contests, but suffice to say, all three represented story lines that we’ve seen before as Anteater fans.

December 11, 84-53 loss to Saint Mary’s

UCI hangs with an elite opponent for most of the first half before completely falling apart in the second half. The Gael big men hold Ioannis and Galloway to a combined four points. Rutherford impresses.

December 14, 76-69 loss to Nevada

Anteaters play pretty well overall, but can’t hit any big shots down the stretch. Worku shines with a career-high 19 while Rutherford grabs 14 rebounds.

December 20, 85-79 OT loss to New Mexico State

Jaron Martin shoots lights out to open the game en route to a superb 33 point performance. UCI holds the lead for a dominant majority of the game, only for NMSU to do just enough to tie the game in regulation. Buzzer beater attempt doesn’t even get up before a travel is called, and then the ‘Eaters stand no chance in OT. Shades of the Cal game. Oh, and the two leading scorers after Jaron? Worku and Rutherford.

The reoccurring theme for this stretch (besides UCI’s inability to make enough clutch plays to pull off a big upset)? The consistent improvement from our two standout freshman.

Up to this point in the season, Coach Turner has allowed nearly the entire bench (with the somewhat curious exception of Darrian Traylor) a significant leash. Even when games are close and the competition staunch, Turner has not shied away from playing freshman-heavy lineups and letting guys take their lumps and bruises. Looking at the stat sheet, 10 different guys are averaging 10+ minutes a game. The only two guys who have not are the aforementioned Traylor and center Brad Greene, who I’m guessing is only held back by his physical conditioning.

Granted, part of the even split has been the big men consistently getting into foul trouble. But there’s no doubt that Turner is adhering to the old ideology of trial by fire.

Two more (real) games remain before the Big West slate tips off. Now is about the time that Turner should start whittling down the rotation to eight guys on most nights, barring foul trouble or unique match-ups. It’s also time to lean on Worku and Rutherford, who look like pillars of the program for years to come.

Assuming Luke Nelson is indeed going to play in El Paso today or tomorrow, or soon thereafter, the rotation should be as such: Nelson-Martin-Smith-Galloway-Ioannis. Off the bench: Worku, Rutherford, Hazzard. Assuming foul trouble, the ninth guy is John Edgar or Brad Greene, depending on the opposing lineup.

I’m excited to see how Luke’s entrance at the top of the totem poll benefits the rest of the guys who will now encounter one notch lower on the defensive game plan from opponents. Jaron and Ioannis have been double-teamed mercilessly in recent games, and I can see Nelson improving the quality of life for both dramatically. Throw in  the continued growth of Worku (ala Patrick Rembert in 2007-2008) and Rutherford (ala WDII in 2011-2012), and we just may see the ‘Eaters lock up an impressive seed in the BWT after all.