Big things are expected of this year’s UC Irvine men’s basketball team after its run to the Big West Tournament semifinals last season. Despite finishing 12-20 overall and 6-10 in conference last year, the Anteaters were picked to finish third in the conference in the latest preseason poll and have started conference with a 1-2 record.

“We are going to continue with many of the things we did from last year that we showed we could be good at and because of that we’re way ahead of where we were this time last year,” Head Coach Russell Turner said. “I’m relieved about that but that certainly doesn’t guarantee us anything.”

Currently 7-9 on the season, the Anteaters enter conference play after inconsistent showings in their non-conference schedule. Irvine began the season with close losses against a then-ranked No. 13 UCLA and LSU, but its breakthrough performance came against USC where the Anteaters went on the road and defeated the Trojans 61-54.

Despite respectable showings against quality opponents from major conferences, Irvine has had lackluster performances against some of its lesser opponents, including losses versus Sam Houston State and Weber State. UCI defeated UC Davis in its conference opener 69-58, but has since lost two straight games on the road against UCSB and Cal Poly.

Defense and rebounding so far have been the cornerstones of the Anteater’s success as they lead the Big West in several statistical defensive categories, including scoring defense (63.2), field goal percentage (.367), three-point field goal percentage (.296) and blocks (4.9). UCI also tops the league in defensive rebounds (466) and is second in rebounding margin (+6.4).

What separates Irvine from the rest of the league is its experience, as the Anteaters bring back four seniors from last year’s squad. Leading the way will be Preseason All-Big West senior guard/forward Michael Wilder, who enters as the conference’s active leader in points (762), assists (162), field goals made (223), three-pointers made (152) and minutes played (2,321).

Just as important will be last season’s All-Big West Honorable mention senior guard Daman Starring, who averaged 11.4 points per game last season and currently leads the team in scoring with 13.6 points per game. With three of its top scorers from last season returning as well as two of its top rebounders, Irvine’s experience will be a major advantage down the stretch when the team nears March.

“We are more of a veteran team. We have four seniors and those guys have done a good job; they worked really hard in the offseason,” Turner said. “They’ve showed a lot of physical toughness which is important for our team to more clearly establish. It’s not just been them; I think all the guys who have been in the program are better as far as that stuff goes.”

A version of this article appeared on page 9 of January 9th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.