Of all the teams that populate a very even conference, one that would be wise not to sleep on is UC Riverside. Picked to finish fourth in the Big West according to the preseason polls, the Highlanders look to build off of a 2008-09 campaign that went down in the books as one of their most successful seasons in program history. UCR (7-7 overall, 1-1 in Big West) finished tied for fourth in conference a season ago, their highest finish in school history, with their first winning season as a Division I school. Furthermore, that same 17-13 record marked Riverside’s best finish since the 1996-97 season, numbers that after 14 regular season games seem very attainable for an encore.

Bolstered by the hiring of third-year Head Coach Jim Wooldridge, UCR began making immediate progress for a program that had struggled since its move up to Division 1 at the turn of the century. Wooldridge seemed to make an immediate impact, taking the Highlanders past the first round of the Big West Tournament in 2007-08 for only the second time ever. Apart from making notable progress the following year, Riverside humbled all but two Big West schools at least once during conference play, proving their days as a doormat were over.

Averaging just over 60 points per game, UCR took teams to task on the boards as well, securing over 100 rebounds more than their opponents while taking care of the ball to boot, averaging only 13.4 turnovers per game. Then-sophomore forward Kyle Austin led his team in scoring with 16 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, earning All-Big West First Team honors, the only Highlander to earn postseason accolades. Unfortunately for the team, a Josh Akognon-led Fullerton squad bullied UCR out of the Big West Tournament with a 59-46 postseason defeat.

With Austin returning for his junior year, UC Riverside looked poised to make a statement early in the year with upset possibilities in their first two games, opening the season at New Mexico State’s infamous “Pit” before taking a trip to the Galen Center for a date with USC. Unfortunately, the home teams got the better of a Highlander team that struggled to find an offensive threat outside Austin. The Lobos defeated UCR 67-51 in front of 11,000 strong — the largest crowd Riverside has seen this season — and USC coasted to a 77-67 win. In both losses, Austin was held to just eight points.

Already at 0-2 early in the year, Riverside responded with a five game winning streak that featured victories over Sacramento State and Cal State Bakersfield. In all five games, Austin led his team in points with an average of 20.8 points and 9.6 rebounds over the five-game stretch, dropping 28 on USD at one point. However, as UCR entered the meat of its non-conference schedule, it began to struggle. Riverside went 1-4 over its next five games before Big West play, losing three in a row at one point, capped by a 58-53 loss at San Diego State.

Finishing the non-conference at 6-6 and riding that three game skid, UCR was expected to fold when they played host to Big West favorite Long Beach State at home to open conference play last week. Judging by the first half — when LBSU led by 11 at one point — the critics seemed to have Riverside’s number. However, a strong second half propelled the Highlanders to overtime, and senior guard Larry Gurganious cashed in the winning layup for Riverside with just a second to go.

UCR again had trouble putting two solid halves of basketball together in their second conference tilt with UCSB, playing inspired defense in the first half before allowing the Gauchos to heat up in the second, ultimately stealing the victory away from the home team 57-53. Austin again led all scorers with 20 points. The Highlanders will remain at home to continue their conference schedule against CSU Fullerton this Saturday in a televised game.

If UC Riverside is to realistically compete for a conference title and high seeding in the Big West Tournament, other players besides Austin will need to step up on offense. Two prime candidates for a secondary scoring role are Gurganious and Cunningham, senior guards who along with Austin have been the only three Highlanders to start every game this year. Also look for senior guard Rudy Meo, Riverside’s sixth man, to get more playing time off the bench, as he has been productive in his minutes, averaging six points in 12 minutes per game.

If Austin continues to put up All-American numbers while getting help offensively and on the boards, Riverside might just be a dangerous team for the rest of the year.