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UC Irvine aiming for first NCAA tournament appearance as a Division I member

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

In the first two seasons of Russell Turner’s tenure at UC Irvine the Anteaters took their lumps, winning a total of 25 games and finishing no better than sixth in the Big West (six league victories in each season). But things changed for the Anteaters in 2012-13, as head coach Russell Turner’s team won 21 games (11 in Big West play) and made the program’s first postseason appearance since 2002.

Two of those victories came at the expense of Big West regular season champion Long Beach State, with the Anteaters knocking off the 49ers in the semifinals of the Big West tournament. UC Irvine fell in the title game to Pacific, ending their hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament and resulting in a trip to the CollegeInsider.com tournament.

Despite the graduation of Adam Folker, Daman Starring and Michael Wilder expectations are high for UC Irvine entering the 2013-14 season, with the prevailing feeling being that the Anteaters have the combination of returnees and newcomers needed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time as a Division I member.

“Last season we played as a team, and we had [great] chemistry on and off the court,” said junior forward Will Davis II in an interview with NBC Sports when asked what the difference was last season compared to the season prior. “We did many things together to improve our team bonding, and I feel like everyone had the same goals to be as good as possible, push each other in practice and do our best to win every game.”

One area where the improvement was evident in 2012-13 was defensively, with the Anteaters limiting opponents to a Big West-best 38.7% shooting from the field, an improvement of nearly three percentage points from the season prior (41.5%). Davis II was a big reason why UC Irvine improved in that department, with his 2.4 blocks per game leading the Big West and resulting in the 6-foot-8 forward winning Big West Defensive Player of the Year honors.

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Davis II saw a decent amount of playing time at the center position, but that may change some given how much size the Anteaters have inside. UC Irvine has three 7-footers, including freshmen Mamadou Ndiaye (7-foot-5) and Giannis Dimakopoulos (7-foot-2) and sophomore Conor Clifford (7-foot-0), and two 6-foot-10 centers in John Ryan and Mike Best. That size could result in Davis II playing the majority of his minutes at the four, which will likely benefit the Anteaters.

“I can guard some,” said Davis II. “For example, if we play zone I’ll guard a wing instead of being the center in the zone. It just takes a little bit of the load off my back as I won’t be the lone big man and have to guard the five every night.”

But even with the many big men at Turner’s disposal, he’s got some solid perimeter players as well. UC Irvine adds New Mexico transfer Dominique Dunning and freshman Luke Nelson, who was named England’s Under-18 Player of the Year in 2013 and averaged 19 points per game during this summer’s Under-19 European Championships. They’ll join two returnees in senior Chris McNealy and sophomore Alex Young who should be in the running for all-conference honors this season.

The 6-foot-4 McNealy is the lone senior on the roster, and the most experienced player in the Big West this season (2,243 minutes) was a productive sixth man (9.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg) for the Anteaters last season. As for Young, the 6-foot-1 guard is both the present and the future of the UC Irvine program. As a freshman Young started 29 games and posted averages of 9.2 points, 3.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game, sharing Big West Freshman of the Year honors with Hawaii forward Isaac Fotu.

With a year of experience under his belt, Young has the skill needed to cement his standing as one of the conference’s best players.

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“He’s progressed a lot. He’s taken on a leadership role since he’s our returning point guard, so he’s been very vocal,” said Davis II of Young. “He’s been putting in a lot of work outside of practice as well.”

Leaders stepping up is something to keep an eye on as the season wears on, with the Anteaters losing three in the form of Starring, Folker and Wilder. Starring was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 12.9 ppg on a balanced squad that had just one player averaging double figures. The 6-foot-9 Folker averaged 9.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game playing alongside Davis II inside and Wilder, the man who was known by the casual observer for his hairstyle, was also one of the Big West’s most versatile players (8.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.0 apg).

Players such as McNealy, Davis II and Young will need to grab the reins and be the leaders the Anteaters need if they’re to be the Big West contender many expect them to be.

Given the amount of success that Long Beach State has enjoyed of late, winning at least a share of the last three Big West titles, dethroning the 49ers won’t be an easy task despite their having to account for the graduation of Big West Player of the Year James Ennis. But even with that being the case the rest of the Big West will concede nothing, with UC Irvine being among the teams taking a run at the throne.

Big South moving 2016 conference tournament

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The Big South is moving its 2016 men’s basketball tournament out of Coastal Carolina and a new site will be figured out by November. According to a release from the conference the Big South is using a league bylaw that stipulates that members leaving with less than two years of notice are not eligible to host championships. Coastal Carolina announced this summer that it would be leaving for the Sun Belt as of July 2016, so the Big South wants to find a new location that benefits teams staying in the league.

The Big South men’s and women’s conference tournaments are now also going to be split into two unique events, with the men’s championships being held Thursday-Sunday, March 3-6. The women’s event comes the next week from March 10-13. Bids for both events will come into the league and a new location will be selected in the next few months.

It will be interesting to see if the site of the conference tournament is moved to a campus site or placed at a neutral venue. That type of thing could alter how the NCAA tournament autobid gets played out. With Coastal Carolina coming off of back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, this obviously changes their approach to the postseason now that they have to leave their city.

Virginia Tech could redshirt sophomore guard

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Virginia Tech is trying to decide what to do with injury sophomore guard Ahmed Hill, who had surgery this summer to deal with a tear in his patella tendon in his left knee.

The 6-foot-5 Hill has still not been released to work out with the team, but he is about a week to 10 days ahead of schedule in his rehab. But the injury is still nagging enough that Hill might not be healthy enough to really contritbute this season. Head coach Buzz Williams is deciding soon whether he wants to redshirt Hill or not.

Hill started a team-high 30 games for the Hokies last season, averaging 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.

“I don’t have a decision on (Hill),” Williams said to reporters on Monday. “I will make the final decision. I’ll let (him) and his mom be a part of it, but I want to make a decision using the wisdom of doing this for a long period of time. If you let a kid make the decision, they always want to play.

“Right now, I don’t feel comfortable that I would want to play him. It’s just too early to be able to have much more of an answer than that.”

It’s still a rebuilding year for Virginia Tech, but they do get Maryland transfer Seth Allen, who is a talented guard who can score. The Hokies were hoping to have Hill and Allen as complimentary perimeter scorers, but now the plans might have to be altered. Williams went on to say that he would like to make a decision on Hill’s status by Halloween.