Becoming a consistently winning program is tougher in college sports than anywhere else. Student turnover rates are high, and often a team is forced to field young and inexperienced squads if they graduate a large senior class. Thus is the case for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team. The Anteaters only have two seniors, and the young squad suffered some serious growing pains early on with an apocalyptic 2-10 preseason record.

“I guess you can say it’s been a struggle so far,” Head Coach Pat Douglass said. “Mainly [our issue is] that we’ve had a bunch of young players who need more experience. We’ve been doing better in the past few games, but we have a ways to go.”

Despite the record, the Anteaters grew enormously as a team during the preseason and opened up the Big West season looking like a far more confident team in a 78-74 overtime win over Fullerton. After grinding out one solid victory, the Irvine squad now had the little bit of momentum and confidence that is crucial to their continued development.

“I think they’re getting confident, but a few wins helps that a long ways,” Douglass said. “We have to come up on top a few times for us to really boost our confidence. Our preseason schedule was pretty tough, but looking at other teams in the Big West, they all had tough schedules too. Now that the conference season has started, the preseason schedule isn’t very important. All records go out the window when league play starts.”

Senior forward Kevin Bland is the court leader for UCI, something he hasn’t had to be in the past thanks to a few stellar senior classes before him. For Bland, the adjustment to becoming a leader – already tough – has been made more difficult by his team’s early struggles. For him, the key has just been getting the rest of the squad to continue playing hard despite their many losses.

“It’s been a different challenge [leading the team],” Bland said. “I haven’t really been in this position before. You just have to keep the guys believing that wins will come, just keep them working hard every night. We’re getting more confidence. We’ve played some tough teams but we’ve kept it close. Keeping guys’ confidence up and keeping guys playing hard all the time is going to be key for us.”

The lack of confidence has translated into a lack of intensity at times, and this, not talent, seems to be the Anteater’s Achilles’ heel. When they bring their game, they do well, but 10 losses can take the fight out of a team. This has become most apparent in their defense, where lazy transition play has given opponents a lot of easy shots.

“I think defensively, right before the Missouri State tournament, we were dead last in the nation for opponent shooting percentage,” Bland said. “That’s where we decided we needed the most work, and we’re definitely not last anymore. We were giving up a lot of lazy shots, and we weren’t getting back in transition. We are working on getting guys back and making sure they are hustling on every play.”

Bland attributed some of the Anteaters’ defensive sloth to the youthfulness of the team, but not because they are inexperienced in the college game. Instead, Bland said that most of the young guys on the squad were so good in high school that they didn’t need to work hard, and now they are trying to learn to compete again.

“A lot of these guys are coming out of high school when they didn’t need to be hustling all the time,” Bland said. “I know when I was younger it was the same for me. You say “‘Oh, the older guys can handle it, I don’t need to worry so much about getting back [in transition].’ The problem is we don’t have many older guys. If we’re going to have any success this year, we need to get everybody moving.”

Still, if their Fullerton win is any indicator of where Irvine is headed, all signs are positive. Freshman guard Eric Wise blew up for 25 points in that match, and overall, the Anteaters looked more comfortable and confident on the court. The task ahead of them now is to just keep that momentum up.

“I’m trying to be aggressive, it’s my senior year and I want to make the most of it,” Bland said. “Obviously you hope you do well. We’re hoping to keep getting better and make the Big West tournament.”