Daman Starring attempts an under-the-leg slam dunk
New sophomore guard Daman Starring, who last year garnered statewide Freshman of the Year honors in Louisiana, wows the Shocktoberfest crowd with an attempted under-the-leg slam dunk. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

With new men’s coach Russell Turner’s thunderous dunk at Shocktoberfest, the UC Irvine basketball season roared into action, with a renewed sense of optimism for the men’s and women’s teams.

Coming off losing seasons, both squads feature deep and experienced lineups capable of competing for the Big West tournament title in March and a spot in NCAA postseason play. The men’s team will kick off its exhibition schedule Nov. 2 against UC San Diego in the Bren Events Center, while the women’s next home exhibition game is Nov. 5 against the University of Redlands.

The Anteaters take to the road to open their regular season schedules: The men play Nov. 8 at the University of Illinois, and the women play Nov. 13 at the University of Texas at El Paso. Here’s a look at both teams:

Anteater men

Last year: 14-18 overall; 6-10 in conference

What’s new: Turner comes in as the new head coach after six years as an assistant with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Along with establishing an up-tempo, pro-style game, he’s bringing back a level of excitement about Anteater basketball that hasn’t been seen since the run-and-gun UCI teams of the ’80s. “We’re going to fight like crazy,” he says. “That’s what I’m going to ask my guys to do every day in practice, and that’s what I want us to do every time we have a game. We’re committed to making good things happen with this program.”

To that end, Turner has brought in sophomore guard Daman Starring, who’s transferring from Centenary College of Louisiana, where he earned statewide Freshman of the Year honors. Highly touted 6-foot-8 center Maxime Chupin joins the team from the Cholet Basket basketball club in France, which won the French league title last season. Turner is optimistic that Chupin will be cleared by the NCAA to compete for the ’Eaters this season.

Who’s back: The Anteaters bring back 11 players. Two-time All-Big West second-team player Eric Wise returns after one of the finest individual seasons in UCI history, leading the team in scoring (16.3 points per game), rebounding (6.5 per game) and assists (3 per game). Senior guards Darren Moore and Patrick Rembert provide needed experience in the backcourt.

“Clearly, I have a guy who is expected to be all-conference in Wise, but I expect Moore and Rembert to step forward as leaders,” Turner says. “All of that has to happen in order for us to have success.”

What’s the outlook: Turner is setting his sights on the Big West Conference tournament in March, which will be played at the Honda Center in Anaheim; the conference champion gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. “My guys understand that our goal is real clear, and that’s to be playing our best basketball in March,” Turner says. “We’ve got some time to get there. We’re all going to be impatient for success, but success takes time. We’ll be pushing every day to get there as quickly as we can.”

Key games: The Anteaters will host the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer on Nov. 19-21, featuring Navy, Seattle University and Louisiana Tech. On Dec. 23, they’ll play at UCLA, and UCI will play critical conference games at home against Long Beach State on Jan. 22 and UC Santa Barbara on Feb. 12.

Anteater women

Last year: 9-21 overall; 6-10 in conference

What’s new: In her third year, head coach Molly Goodenbour continues to revitalize women’s hoops and has built a deep, balanced team. Top newcomers include sophomore forward Tayler Champion, who transferred from Oregon State and will be eligible to play in December, and incoming freshman forward Jacquelyn Marshall from San Clemente High School.

“Tayler and Jacquelyn bring a new dimension to the team,” Goodenbour says. “They give us scoring on the perimeter, plus some size that allows us to have different looks on defense. We will be more versatile this year.”

Who’s back: Returning are three All-Big West performers. Junior forward Mikah Maly-Karros was first-team all-conference last year, averaging 20.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, and is expected to compete this year for All-America honors. Senior Jade Smith-Williams, honorable-mention all-conference last year, provides leadership in the backcourt; and forward Jazmyne White, 2009-10 Big West Freshman of the Year, looks for another solid season. Contributing to the depth up front, Kim Barnes, a 6-foot-4 center, returns after missing most of last season with a knee injury.

What’s the outlook: The Anteaters open the season with a challenging four-game road trip, including a stop at “The Pit” at the University of New Mexico, one of the toughest places in the country for a visiting team to play. “This nonconference schedule will allow us to see how our new strengths will blend and prepare us for Big West games,” Goodenbour says.

With no clear-cut favorite, the battle for the Big West Conference crown looks to be a scrum among six schools, including UCI. Last year, the Anteaters lost eight games by six points or less, including five by three points or less, and a reversal of that would put the team in contention for the conference title. “If we remain healthy, we’re looking forward to improved depth and ability at nearly every position,” Goodenbour says.

Key games: On Dec. 1, the women host Pepperdine, one of the West Coast Conference’s top squads, and early in the new year, they face an important three-game home series against main conference rivals Long Beach State (Jan. 8), UC Santa Barbara (Jan. 13) and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (Jan. 15).