After being knocked out of the 2005-06 Big West Tournament semifinals thanks to a buzzer-defying Long Beach three-pointer, UC Irvine will look to improve upon last season’s second-place conference finish despite its 2006-07 preseason struggles.

Entering his 10th year at the helm of the Anteaters (7-9 overall, 1-1 in the Big West), Head Coach Pat Douglass will face the dreadful woes of remodeling a brand new backcourt while getting his experienced frontcourt ready to carry the team through the conference season.

Injuries have not helped the process, but while top returning scorer senior forward Nic Campbell was sidelined the first nine games with a lower back strain, junior forward Patrick Sanders and sophomore forward Adam Templeton were able to gain key minutes in the preseason battle for collegiate experience.

“We lost three senior guards last year; two seniors were out and our bench was depleted,” Douglass said. “[In the preseason] we didn’t have much experience or depth on the court.”

Even with his diminished preseason roster, Douglass and the Anteaters were able to nab six wins in a competitive preseason schedule that featured road losses to Fresno State (13-2), Nevada (13-1) and a #16 Oregon (14-1) squad that later upset then-#1 UCLA (14-1). The Anteaters were rewarded for their preseason strife with a fourth-place prediction in the Big West coaches’ poll and will look to repeat last season’s 8-0 start in Big West play after being picked to finish fifth overall.

“We had one of the toughest preseason schedules in the nation, but we learned that we need to finish games strong,” Templeton said. “After a tough preseason, our guards have become more experienced and they’ve adapted well. They look to come on strong at the start of the season.”

Freshman guard Michael Hunter has matured down the preseason stretch and is now averaging 6.4 points a game off of the bench. Junior guard Chuma Awaji has also adapted quickly to the Irvine offense. The Lon Morris College transfer is averaging 6.1 points a game and boasts the highest free throw percentage on the team at 84.2 as well as the most assists with 38. Freshman guard Chad DeCasas is recording 5.2 points a game and his .463 shooting average is sixth on the Anteaters.

“Guard play is essential,” Douglass said. “[Hunter] has improved for us, but we still have a ways to go. Hopefully, we don’t have too much to learn for conference play.”

Hoping to make up for the youth at the guard position, Douglass hired Assistant Coach Rhett Soliday whose experience as a point guard in college will help teach the young Anteater backcourt. But if Irvine hopes to repeat last season’s success and defy its critics, then the Anteaters will have to rely on their upperclassmen to handle the scoring load in a conference that favors deeper and more experienced teams.

“It’s not bad being an underdog,” Templeton said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. We can forget about the media and just play for ourselves.”

Junior forward/center Darren Fells leads the team with 11 points per game and 16 per game in conference matches. The Fullerton, Calif. native’s dominance under the boards has allowed him to grab 99 rebounds – good for fifth in the Big West – validating his selection to the All-Big West preseason team was well earned.

“[Fells] is a tough kid,” Douglass said. “Not too many players at this level have the physique that he does. He converts well inside and when he plays with emotion he can be very effective.”

Campbell’s return from injury came along quickly as he sank double digits in his first three games back. While he has yet to start a game, Douglass has implemented Campbell in clutch situations where the Anteaters have been desperate for points. Ranked fourth on Irvine with 9.1 points per game, Campbell has turned his limited playing time into effectiveness on the court. But it is his tenacious ability to lead the offense that the Anteaters missed the most during their preseason struggles.

“Having [Campbell] back is a big help and it’s a big benefit to our team,” Templeton said. “He’s a great offensive threat and he relieves a lot of pressure off of the rest of the team. He’s a great player and he brings great leadership to the team.”

Because of Campbell’s presence, Templeton has found many more open shots and has exploited holes left open by defenses focusing on his 6’7” teammate. Templeton ranks third among the Anteaters with 10.3 points a game and his consistency from beyond the arc is a potent weapon against any solid defense. Sporting a 40.2 three-point shooting percentage, Templeton ranks seventh in the Big West while averaging just over two treys a game.

“It’s just about being confident and getting a lot of shots,” Templeton said. “Our point guards have been getting me the ball in transitions and allowing me to shoot easier shots. Easier shots make it easier to get the ball in.”

If the Anteaters hope to stay afloat in the Big West this season, then their buoyancy in the standings will weigh heavily on their ability to mature quickly as a team and react to the difficult challenges posed by teams with far more experience.

“The top schools seem to be Fullerton, Santa Barbara and Long Beach right now,” Douglass said. “We have the opportunity to compete this year and the league is up for grabs. We’re just trying to find ourselves.”