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The UC Irvine men’s basketball team will try to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history this season, after narrowly failing to do so last year. Irvine lost in the Big West Tournament championship game last season to Pacific, but has as good a chance of any team in the conference to make it to the big dance this year.
Irvine was selected to finish first in the Big West preseason media poll, receiving nine of 24 total first place votes. The Anteaters have received mixed results so far this season, finishing non-conference play with a 9-7 overall record, highlighted by an impressive 86-72 road victory over Washington.
Junior forward Will Davis II, last season’s conference Defensive Player of the Year, headlines the Anteaters this season and was selected to the Preseason All-Conference Team. Davis II leads the team with 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, while registering 1.1 blocks per game, second best on Irvine.
“He’s probably the best athlete in the league. Offensively, his game has just expanded,” Head Coach Russell Turner said. “He’s added some things to his game, he’s gotten better, he’s gotten older and he’s confident. He is one of the top players in the conference undoubtedly and I’m real happy with the way he has continued to improve and sacrifice for his teammates.”
Besting Davis in blocked shots is 7’6” freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye, who averages 3.4 blocks per game, good for 14th in the entire nation. Ndiaye also leads the nation with a .765 field goal percentage, while adding just over nine points and five rebounds per game.
“He’s a really good player who’s very competitive and more skilled in a lot of ways than people expect, so he’s a factor,” Turner said. “That’s what I’ve seen from him all along and I think others have been slow to recognize that. We’re a different team when he’s on the floor because he’s so big.”
Height is certainly a strength for Irvine as the Anteaters have eight players who are 6’7” or taller, including three seven-footers.
A pair of guards in senior Chris McNealy and freshman Luke Nelson each add over 11 points per game for the Anteaters. Sophomore guard Alex Young (9.9 points per game) rounds out the starting lineup for Irvine, giving the team a balanced scoring attack from every position on the floor.
“We’ve got good basketball players at all five spots; we’ve got some depth. The thing I like about us offensively is every guy can pass and that makes us dangerous,” Turner said. “We’re starting two freshmen, so it takes time with a young team. We’ve shown we need some time to get better but we’ve also shown that we’re getting better.”
One other asset Irvine possesses is a relatively young squad, with McNealy being the only senior on the team. With a young and talented squad, the Anteaters will once again be a threat to win the Big West, both this year and for many seasons to come.
Irvine begins Big West play on Thursday at Long Beach State.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of January 8, 2013′s print edition of The Daily Nexus.