Things are looking up for the UC Irvine menâ€™s basketball team â€“ in more ways than one.
The Anteaters enter the 2013-14 season favored to win the Big West Conference, as head coach Russell Turner sends onto the court what could prove to be the best team in UC Irvine history. Itâ€™s already the tallest.
In fact, UC Irvine is fielding the tallest team in all of collegiate basketball this year. Three 7-footers (including 7-foot-6 freshman Mamadou Ndiaye) bolster the baseline, with four others who stand 6-foot-8 or taller.
Meet the Great Wall of Irvine.
â€śWeâ€™ll be playing some big-boy ball this year,â€ť says Will Davis II, a 6-foot-8 junior forward and returning Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year. â€śWeâ€™ll be getting a lot of blocks and dunks.â€ť
In his fourth year as head coach, Turner has rebuilt the Anteater program, constructing a deep, athletic roster featuring only one senior, guard Chris McNealy. Just two years ago, the team was picked in a number of media preseason polls to finish last in the conference. This year, itâ€™s first â€“ not that Turner places much importance on these polls.
â€śPredictions donâ€™t really matter,â€ť he says, â€śbut that doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re going to shy away from that expectation.â€ť
If the prognosticators are correct, the Anteater men will receive an automatic bid to the postseason â€śbig danceâ€ť for the first time. To do so, they will have to win the Big West Conference tournament title in March. Since its inception, the team has made the final four times â€“ including last year â€“ but has yet to win that critical last game.
Turner and his players are focused on clearing that hurdle. â€śWe know itâ€™s a long-distance race, and we know what weâ€™re aiming at: that three-game stretch at the Big West Conference tournament,â€ť he says.
â€śEverybody is going to be coming for us,â€ť says McNealy, who has emerged as a squad leader, along with Davis. â€śJust because we were picked preseason No. 1 in conference doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re going to finish that way. We have to work hard every day. And itâ€™s going to be exciting.â€ť
Fans are buzzing about what may be Turnerâ€™s finest incoming class yet. His recruitment of talented foreigners is bearing fruit, with 7-foot-2 center Ioannis Dimakopoulos of Patra, Greece, and 6-foot-3 guard Luke Nelson of Worthing, England, joining the team. Nelson is the current under-18 player of the year in England.
And all eyes are on Ndiaye, a graduate of tiny Brethren Christian Junior & Senior High School in Huntington Beach. Heâ€™s hard to miss â€“ at 7-foot-6, he towers over the UC Irvine student body.
Ndiaye came to Southern California from Dakar, Senegal, at age 17 to pursue basketball and education. He became a YouTube sensation at Brethren Christian â€“ one highlight video has gotten almost 5 million hits â€“ and was hotly recruited by such big-conference schools as Georgetown University, the University of Oregon, the University of Arizona and USC.
He chose to stay close to home, and by all indications, itâ€™s been a fine fit. A kind and generous young man, Ndiaye has been embraced by his teammates and the greater Anteater community. Fellow students ask him for autographs, photos and hugs, which he happily agrees to, provided they donâ€™t make him late for class.
â€śI like it here,â€ť he says. â€śItâ€™s a good school, and the people are friendly. Itâ€™s comfortable, and itâ€™s like family.â€ť
In addition to UC Irvineâ€™s stellar academics â€“ Ndiaye plans to focus on business and psychology â€“ he chose the campus because of Turner, who at 6-foot-7 himself has some insight into coaching big players. Making Anteater basketball history is also a draw.
â€śI want to be part of the first UC Irvine team to make the NCAA tournament,â€ť Ndiaye says.
Itâ€™s an ambition he shares with his teammates, all of whom are on a mission to go where no Anteater squad has gone before.
â€śWith this team,â€ť Davis says, â€śthe skyâ€™s the limit.â€ť
The Anteater men kick off the 2013-14 season Friday, Nov. 8, against Fresno State in the Bren Events Center. Click here for the complete schedule.