Expected to finish last in the Big West, the UC Riverside men’s basketball team has so far surpassed all expectations, finishing the preseason 7-4 and holding the best overall record in the conference along with Pacific.

“Hopefully, [by the end of the season] we’ll be in the NCAA tournament,” 6’4″ senior guard Aaron Scott said. “I want to make sure I do whatever I can to get us to go deep in the conference.”

Scott is the only consistent veteran starter on the Highlander roster. Averaging 9.4 points a game so far this season, Scott also is the most efficient of the starters, shooting .506 from the field. He leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per game.

“We have a lot more experience, depth and versatility [than last season],” Scott said. “Last year, we had a five- or six-man rotation. We couldn’t finish out the games. Our versatility has been big for us so far.”

The team needs two more wins the rest of the season just to tie last season’s 9-21 record. Head Coach Jim Wooldridge, who took the reigns of the Highlanders last season and has had success rebuilding basketball programs most recently at Kansas State and Louisiana Tech, led the team to its first Big West Tournament victory in four years with a win over Cal Poly. Wooldridge has added eight new players to the program, including three of the four of the team’s top leading scorers.

“We brought in players that believe they can win, that wanted to come into this program and build it into a winner,” Wooldridge said. “The bottom line is that we started to establish a core belief in how we can win here – and that’s through mental and physical toughness.”

Highlighting Wooldridge’s first Highlander recruiting class is 6’7″ forward Kyle Austin from USC, who leads the Highlanders with 17.5 points a game. Austin earned Big West Player of the Week honors after scoring 20 in his season debut against Loyola Marymount on Dec. 15. The NCAA granted Austin an additional year of eligibility after Austin filed a medical hardship waiver due to a back injury that limited him to only two minutes of play for USC in the 2007-08 season.

“I’m glad to finally get the opportunity to play,” Austin said. “At the moment, we all feel we were legit contenders in the conference.”

Other leading scorers include 6’4″ junior guard Brandon Dowdy, who averages 10 points a game, and 6’0″ junior guard Javon Borum, who averages 9.7 points a game and leads the team with 29 total assists. Dowdy missed three consecutive games due to a shoulder injury, but scored three points in 20 minutes in a 46-52 loss to Denver on Dec. 28. In spite of losing their last two games of the preseason, the Highlanders’ 7-4 start is their best on record in the nine years that Riverside has been playing Division I basketball.

“It will be very difficult to predict how [the Big West teams} will finish in this league,” Wooldridge said. “There’s lots of ebb and flow and parody. It should be an exciting season for everybody.”

Guard Rudy Meo from Evanston, Il., who Wooldridge expected to be a starting combo guard for the Highlanders, underwent knee surgery in November and is out indefinitely. The Highlanders play their first conference game at UC Davis on Jan. 8 at 7 p.m.

“We’re doing way better than what everybody expected us to,” Scott said. “Our team’s taking ownership, we’re winning with our defense, we’re coming through and making big plays in the clutch. We’re growing and learning. I feel like we’re prepared for our conference.”