The non-conference slate has come to an end. More important than UCI’s 101-43 romp over a non D-I school or even our 7-9 record on the season was the fact that Luke Nelson made his season debut and managed to score 16 points in 16 minutes.

Without Luke for the first 15 games, UCI ultimately failed to pull out any quality wins. And while the Anteaters’ woes are more complex than one specific issue, I thought we’d take a look at the main problem: an inability to score. More specifically, UCI’s guards, while more quick and athletic than the guards we’ve seen in recent years, just could not knock down enough shots.

 (through 15 games) FG% 3FG%
E. Worku 38.6% 31.7%
M. Hazzard 37.0% 26.8%
E. Leonard 28.2% 23.7%
B. Smith 31.3% 28.6%
S. Rivers 30.0% 26.7%
D. Traylor 28.6% 33.3%

Several of these percentages were boosted by good shooting days against Life Pacific (Traylor’s 3-4 day from three particularly encouraging), but I figured the above provided a more accurate representation of the season in a nutshell. Clearly, not good. And Worku is probably the only one consistently trending in the right direction.

So, did UCI sacrifice shooting ability in order to get more athletic and quicker guards? Turner has always preached defense first, but can these youngsters improve their shooting enough to reach the lofty heights of their recent predecessors?

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a few Anteater guards of seasons gone by who were not known for their shooting ability. Did these guys improve as they gained more experience? Or is shooting much harder to develop compared with gaining strength, basketball IQ, and overall mastery of the offensive scheme?

 FG% / 3FG% Freshman Sophomore Junior Senior
Alex Young 39.0% / 26.1% 39.5% / 32.6% 41.1% / 33.8% 43.3% / 39.6%
Derrick Flowers 31.4% / 30.8% 30.9% / 0.0% 37.7% / 35.2% 28.8% / 20.8%
Chris McNealy 37.9% / 34.5% 39.9% / 41.7% 41.9% / 33.7% 43.8% / 35.9%
Patrick Rembert 37.0% / 36.8% 41.9% / 37.0% 34.3% / 32.7% 37.6% / 36.0%
Michael Hunter 44.9% / 44.0% 43.2% / 39.7% 42.5% / 39.2% 40.5% / 36.2%
Patrick Sanders 29.1% / 0.0% 42.9% / 38.3% 41.7% / 31.4% 45.9% / 40.8%

Shooting percentage is far from a perfect statistic to judge shooting ability, but I found the above breakdown interesting. All six guys played four seasons in Irvine, and each player was someone I was curious about in terms of shooting development.

I only saw Mike Hunter play as a senior, and had no idea that it was actually his worst shooting year. I’m sure part of it had to do with Hunter taking on more of the burden as a key scorer, and thus forcing more difficult shots, but he actually shot worse from the field and from three-point land as he went from freshman to senior.

Meanwhile, Patrick Sanders is the best case scenario of the bunch. Sanders went from not even attempting a single three-point shot during his freshman year to shooting over 40 percent by his senior year. His field goal percentage also showed steady improvement throughout his college career.

Patrick Rembert had an unorthodox shot as an Anteater, but it looks like his field goal percentage was bolstered by his preference for dribble-drive lay-ups. He had by far his best scoring season as a senior, when he also attempted double the number of threes per game compared to his sophomore and junior years. Although percentage wise he stayed pretty steady throughout his four years, it’s safe to say that Rembert improved by his senior season when he was probably given the green light to attempt threes that weren’t wide open.

Chris McNealy had a nice mid-range jumper occasionally, but unfortunately it never became the dominant force that Irvine fans hoped it would become. Although Chris’ field goal percentage improved incrementally each year, Turner’s first recruit was another example of shooting ability as a non-linear progression — McNealy’s best three-point shooting season was by far his sophomore year.

Derick Flowers’ statistics display another discouraging sample. While he seemed like a likable teammate and had some flashy moves once in a while, it doesn’t seem like #0 ever improved his shooting from freshman year to senior year. By his senior year, he was replaced by another guy on our list…

Alex Young. AY had that huge three-pointer at UCLA early in his career, which perhaps belies a shaky 26.1% overall mark as a freshman. As a sophomore and junior he was more respectable, but by senior year, AY was an excellent 39.6% from deep, second only to Sanders on our list. Young transformed himself from a pass-first point guard who was valued for his decision-making and maturity, to a veteran leader who still had those qualities but could also put the team on his back and break the scoring drought when he had to.

Sanders and Young are some big names to live up to, but there is hope. All six of our freshman and sophomores have three-point percentages hovering right around that 26.1 percent Young had as a freshman, if not better. So as long as they put in enough practice and put up enough shots, I believe there is still hope yet for each of them to become fine DI marksmen. Whether we will begin to see signs of that this season remains to be seen, but assuming Luke can keep playing rust-free as we turn the calendar to 2017, there is reason to be optimistic.

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