After finishing at the bottom of the Big West with a 3-11 record last season, the Riverside men’s basketball team can only hope to improve. After the Highlanders finished the 2005-2006 season with a 76-44 loss to UCSB in the first round of the Big West tournament, they were picked to finish dead last in the Big West by preseason polls from coaches and members of the press.

With that thought in mind as they entered the 2006-2007 season, the Highlanders’ (3-13 overall, 0-4 in the Big West) woes continued, as they encountered many hardships and losses before the season started. Head Coach David Spencer was granted a medical leave of absence three days before the start of the season before Assistant Coach Vonn Webb was named the interim head coach.

Before the season, transfer Mark Hall was killed in a car accident, and just a few games into the season, forward Benoit Bekono suffered a potentially season-ending knee injury in the loss to San Diego State (11-5).

“[With all the injuries] we are now very thin and short,” senior guard Dedrick Bates said. “Our play in the preseason makes us realize that, if we had our full strength as a team, what could have been the outcome?”

In addition to these misfortunes, the Highlanders still faced top-ranked teams before Big West play started. To name a few, Riverside faced #1 UCLA (14-1), Montana (7-9) and San Diego State, all of which played in the NCAA tournament last season.

“Playing against upper-tiered teams, they exploit our weaknesses,” Webb said. “And we will learn to get better because of that.”

The Highlanders finished the preseason with a record of 3-8, with wins against Eastern Illinois (7-12), Vanguard University (4-10) and Hope International University (3-14). The Highlanders went into Big West play in the last week of December on a six-game losing streak.

“Their record is not the greatest, but they are playing well,” UCSB Assistant Coach Matt Stock said. “They have played a tough schedule. They played UCLA, San Diego and Montana – all of which were in the NCAA tournament last year. They will definitely be experienced and battle-tested come Big West play.”

The 3-8 record could be the cause of the change in coaches just days before the season started. However, because Webb served as Spencer’s assistant coach last year, both styles are similar.

“Coach Webb knows exactly what Coach Spencer wanted,” Bates said. “His coaching style is pretty much the same, so there is nothing new in the coaching style. As a person, Webb is more tempered guy, but their coaching style is the same.”

A few players have stepped out to lead the Highlanders during the preseason. Senior point guard Justin Bell and junior guard Larry Cunningham lead the Highlanders in many categories. Bell is leading the team with an average of 12.3 points per game, and holds a field goal average of 36 percent; Cunningham leads the team defensively with 90 rebounds, good for an average of 5.6 per game. Cunningham is ranked sixth in the Big West statistics for rebounds.

“Justin Bell, their point guard, is their leading scorer right now” Stock said. “He is definitely someone you have to contain. He is a quick athletic player. Cunningham and Bell have taken the most shots on the team. Those two will be the ones you have to really deal with.”

In order to deal with the loss of the two forwards before the Big West season, Webb had to make changes on the roster in order to fill the holes. After the loss of Bekono in the San Diego game, four different players have played in the forward position. Junior B.J. Visman, sophomore Christian Soto, and freshmen Henrik Thomsen and Charles Jim-George have all seen minutes as forwards. While Visman and Jim-George have seen limited time at the post position, Soto and Thomsen have been their foremost replacements. Soto has started 13 of 16 games, and is averaging 4.1 points per game. Thomsen has started all 15 games he has appeared in, and is averaging 9.5 points per game.

While most attention will be focused on the losses suffered during the preseason, the Highlanders will try to turn such adversity into opportunity for improvement during Big West play.

“[The preseason losses are] a two-fold situation,” Webb said. “I tell them all the time, it’s better in the long-term. It is a source of motivation. We played hard, and we continue to play games, while trying to get over the hump. It’s a tough situation, but the guys will be stronger because of it. If we keep working hard, good things will happen.”

However, with a 0-4 record in their first four conference matches, the Highlanders have not found Big West play to be any easier. With losses to Santa Barbara, Cal Poly, Pacific and Northridge, Riverside will have to discover a winning strategy if it hopes to compete against an even tougher conference schedule ahead.

In their Big West opener against the Gauchos, the Highlanders failed to defend junior guard Alex Harris, whose 20 points in the second half lead to a career-high 32 points. Harris was able to knock down four three-pointers as Santa Barbara kept the Highlander defense on its heels. Riverside kept the game relatively close after failing to record a basket for the first five minutes of play. The Highlanders’ 25 fouls helped Santa Barbara hold on for the 73-65 home win, handing Riverside its seventh straight loss.

Big West failure continued to rain down for the Highlanders as a nail biting 64-67 loss to Cal Poly followed by two convincing losses at home against Pacific and Northridge dropped the Highlanders into an eleven game losing skid. Bell’s team-high 17 points against Northridge was not enough to make up for the Highlanders’ inabilities under the boards, as the Matadors grabbed 21 of 31 in the second half, holding on for the 67-60 win.

Riverside will now embark on a tough four-game road trip, capped off by their season’s toughest game against Big West title contender Long Beach on Jan. 20.