It’s been a different kind of low season, no thanks to the corona pandemic.
“Yes, this was unlike anything else I, or anyone else, have experienced, so hard to put into words how difficult it was,” said Russ Turner, men’s basketball coach at UC Irvine.
UC Irvine went 21-11 last season and won the regular season Big West Conference Title for the second consecutive season with a record of 13-3, but there was no postseason conference tournament, nor NCAA Tournament, because of the pandemic.
Turner and the Anteaters will try to adjust to the loss of some frontline players this season before graduation. Gone are the guards Eyassu Worku and Evan Leonard, as well as the attacker Tommy Rutherford. They were starters and three of the team’s top four scorers last season.
Also gone is short attacker John Edgar Jr., who started 26 of the 30 games he played in.
The 2020-21 season kicks off Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. when UC Irvine takes on Pepperdine in a tournament in the state of San Diego.
“As a coach, you never look at it and say that one man or a group of guys should replace another man who is left,” said Turner. “I will say that the group that graduated last year was a special group.
The case is not bare, by no means.
Returning are 6-foot-11 senior center Brad Greene and forward Collin Cub, a 6-9 junior forward. Greene averaged 9.0 points and a team-best 7.7 rebounds a season ago.
Cub started only two games, thanks in part to Rutherford, but led the team in scoring with an average of 13.0. He also averaged 5.9 rebounds.
Still, the question remains, who will the other three starters be? Turner likes the options. Sophomore forward JC Butler is one.
“JC Butler didn’t play like a red shirt last year, but remember we took out Brad Greene for a year and he came back and was really ready after that red shirt season to make a significant contribution to a champion team. , ‘Said Turner.
Two returning guards who have seen a lot of time are sophomore Jeron Artest – son of former Lakers forward Metta Sandiford-Artest – and sophomore Isaiah Lee.
“We have two kids who played big minutes in our backcourt last year who contributed greatly, especially in some big league games,” said Turner. And that’s Isaiah Lee and Jeron Artest. So it is not the case that we are completely dependent on newcomers. ”
Others to watch are freshman guard Dawson Baker, who recently returned from a Mormon mission; sophomore attacker Austin Johnson; red-shirt freshman guards Justin Hohn and Ofure Ujadughele; and real freshman security guards Andre Henry and DJ Davis.
Greene loves this team, despite the departure of the above players.
“To be honest, I don’t think there will be any difference at all,” he said. “We’re going to miss a lot when Evan, Eyassu, John and Tommy are gone. But I think the guards we had here last year who played under (Leonard and Worku) like Jeron and Isaiah will come out at the beginning of the year to prove themselves, to show that we didn’t. I don’t lose anything. ”
Like Turner, Greene also mentioned the talent of the incoming guards.
Turner is high in this group, that’s for sure.
“To be as blunt as possible, I think this team has the potential to be an excellent team that has the potential to become a championship team in the Big West and has the potential to achieve some of the things that we are used to achieve. around here, which is consistent success, outstanding character off the track, and the hope that we can perform in a way when the NCAA tournament rolls around to shine a positive light on UC Irvine. ”
The Anteaters won a school record of 31 games in 2018-19 and also won the program’s first NCAA Tournament game.
Perhaps the biggest question remains: will the season be played in its entirety? Or is it stopped by COVID-19?
Turner said at one point that he thought one of his players would have it because there were symptoms, but he didn’t.
“We know we could be shut down at any time, and it wouldn’t necessarily be anyone’s fault, because we could be shut down because of an outbreak in our team or because of a breakout in other teams we could play,” he said. .
“I think we’re just paying attention and understanding that we’re trying to make the most of it and stay positive.”
Fans in the stands will be scarce this season, especially in the beginning. Greene understands that and believes he and his teammates have the right attitude to fight the empty seats.
“Honestly,” he said, “I think we are all trying to take this opportunity to play games as the only one we get, be it with fans, without fans.”