The Bears should be brimming with confidence as they head into a Wednesday night hoops matchup with UC Irvine. Cal thumped South Dakota State 82-53 on Friday despite Ivan Rabb missing the contest with a toe injury. They were rewarded with a #25 ranking in the AP poll. Sam Singer and Roger Moute a Bidias both had strong games as Cal demonstrated a balanced attack. Rabb’s status is still in doubt, but Cal will be favored whether he plays or not. UC Irvine shouldn’t be a pushover, though. The team was tabbed to finish second in the Big West behind Long Beach State in a recent media poll.
Head coach Russell Turner led the Anteaters to their first ever NCAA Tournament berth in 2014-15. Interestingly, Turner was a candidate for head coach at Cal following the retirement of Mike Montgomery in 2014. Irvine defeated Hawaii in the Big West championship and nearly upset Louisville in the Big Dance before ultimately falling 57-55. That’s basically the only reason the following season seemed like less than a success. The Eaters tied with Hawaii for first place in the Big West last season but lost in the conference tournament to Long Beach State. That was a bitter pill to swallow after Irvine defeated LBSU twice during the regular season.
It was also the final season for 7’6” center Mamadou N’Diaye. This season, Irvine features a fairly inexperienced team from a depth standpoint and it showed during a recent 72-56 loss to Utah State. In Turner’s words: “We do have a lot of young guys – there's no denying that – but I think they're talented guys.” For what it’s worth, South Dakota State swung into Irvine after playing Cal and lost to the Anteaters 73-58.
It’s clear that Irvine is counting on 6’3” senior guard Luke Nelson this season and may struggle without him. Nelson agreed with that assessment: “In order for the team to be successful, I'm going to have to perform every night, and I like that pressure." The native of England has yet to play this season due to a hamstring injury but led UCI with 13.7 points per game last season. He was the only Anteater to make the Preseason All-Conference Team and it remains unknown whether he will appear against the Bears. As it stands, each team could be missing its main star.
Projected starting lineup
G Max Hazzard - 5’10” Fr. - Point guard is just getting his feet wet but has acted as a steadying influence in Nelson’s absence.
G Jaron Martin - 5’10” Sr. - Followed a miserable game against Utah State with a career best performance on Monday. Martin is UCI’s finest three-point shooter, making them at a 39.4% clip in 2015-16.
F Brandon Smith - 6’5” So. - Will need to grow into this role, but possesses quick hands on defense and can hit the occasional jumper.
F Jonathan Galloway - 6’10” So. - With N’Diaye no longer in the fold, a primary rim protector and rebounder.
C Ioannis Dimakopoulos - 7’2” Sr. - Tends to collect fouls, but can score from the post and is off to a promising start. He’s also an imposing figure for guards who like to penetrate.
G Eyassu Worku - 6’2” Fr. - The Orange County Register’s reigning high school player of the year, he’s a true freshman who has already taken on a sixth man role.
G Evan Leonard - 6’1” Fr. - Has looked solid in scoring 17 points over the last two games, but his nightly playing time will diminish upon Nelson’s return to the court.
F John Edgar, Jr. - 6’5” Fr. - Turner is clearly still experimenting with his rotation. So far, Edgar looks like he can score off the dribble.
F Tommy Rutherford - 6’8” Fr. - Seeing a pattern here? Rutherford shows a willingness to hit the glass but could use more of a midrange game. And no, he’s not a 3rd Rock from the Sun character.
Turner bristles at the idea that his team is less talented than in recent years and points to the senior starters as the reason why they can win another conference crown. Still, you can understand the lack of certainty about who will contribute behind those guys.
Worku is already getting major playing time which has limited chances for fellow freshman guard Darrian Traylor, but it’s a pretty fluid situation with so many underclassmen. If newcomers like Worku can develop quickly, there’s no reason UCI can’t be competitive among its peers. Against Cal, their emerging team chemistry will be put to the test.
It may not shape up as a barn burner, but this pairing always catches my interest as a Cal grad living in Orange County. Basketball isn’t nearly as popular in Irvine as in Berkeley, but that’s more a function of campus life than anything else as the school population sizes are not that dissimilar. Of course, no one would confuse the Big West with the Pac-12 in terms of level of play as a whole. However, in recent years interest has seemed to increase as the conference tournament moved from the Anaheim Convention Center to the much larger Honda Center. Many Big West baseball teams wouldn’t be out of place in the Pac-12, and I wonder if that will ever be true when it comes to basketball.
1: Frustrate Dimakopoulos.
The Greek big man has been efficient in the early going, but Kameron Rooks has been a major shot blocker so far. Rooks might also be able to bait Dimakopoulos into early fouls that would severely test the Anteater bench.
2: Emphasize the team game.
UCI ranked 41st among Division I teams in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, allowing 95.8 points per 100 possessions and the third lowest field-goal percentage in the country. There are some new faces this season, but it’s clear that the 2014 Big West Coach of the Year places a heavy emphasis on keeping the score down. Finding the open man and getting good looks at the basket will be Cal priorities.
3: Keep Domingo involved.
Grant Mullins and Jabari Bird had double-digit games against South Dakota State, but Stephen Domingo’s 7 points in just 16 minutes were a nice boost. As it is, Singer bounced back on Friday after a poor showing in the exhibition. The Bears are going to be tough when all their guards are playing with confidence.
4: Play an aggressive style.
The Anteaters played Monday night and could be a bit more fatigued than the Bears during their matchup at Haas. Compounding that is the superiority of the Cal bench. Pushing the offensive pace when feasible makes sense in this scenario. In any case, Cuonzo Martin can mix and match with his reserves in an attempt to give Turner (an admitted lover of strong coffee) headaches. Thanks, college substitution rules!
5: Stay in front of Jaron Martin.
Cal has enjoyed success defending the perimeter so far, but Martin torched defenders for 24 in his last contest. If Nelson is unable to suit up, Martin is Irvine’s most dangerous player.
Meaningless Prediction: Cal 80, UC Irvine 69
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