Like most of his players, UC Irvine men's basketball coach Russell Turner is no longer a fresh-faced novelty. The passion and vision are still there, but with them has come an informed resolve.
Coming off a 12-20 campaign that followed a 13-19 debut season as a head coach, Turner and a roster that did not lose a single senior from 2011-12 no longer ponder the future as abstract.
"I think we can be good and I think all our players also think we can be good," said Turner, whose Anteaters open the regular season Saturday at home against Nevada at 7 p.m. "What we've got to go through is the struggle to get good. Hopefully, now, If we can play at a really high level, we'll be good enough to beat the teams that we're measured against in our league."
Media voters picked UCI to finish third in the Big West Conference in a preseason poll – its top preseason showing since 2003-04. And the experience factor figures to favor a squad that returns its top eight scorers, including three who started all 32 games.
The group's grizzle is reflected in Anteaters dominating the list of active Big West leaders in several statistical categories, including points (Mike Wilder), rebounds (Adam Folker), and blocked shots (Will Davis).
Wilder, a 6-foot-2 senior, averaged a team-high 11.5 points en route to second-team all-conference honors and he was named to the preseason first team.
Senior Daman Starring (11.4 points per game last season) and junior Chris McNealy (10.2 ppg, including All-Big West Tournament recognition) also started every game last season, while Folker, a 6-9 senior, and Derick Flowers, started all but a handful of contests. Folker, whose lunch-pail toughness sets the tone, received the conference's inaugural Hustle Award last season.
Even with nine returners, however, the addition of John Ryan, a 6-10 sophomore who sat out last season after transferring from Fresno State, and 7-0 freshman Connor Clifford gives the 'Eaters a significantly different look.
Ryan had 14 points and nine rebounds and made all five field-goal attempts in just 13 minutes of a 101-92 exhibition win over Vanguard on Saturday. Clifford, out of Ocean View High, had 11 points (on five-of-seven-shooting) and five boards in 11 minutes.
With Folker, Ryan, Clifford and returning sophomores Davis (7.8 ppg and 5.2 rpg) and Mike Best, UCI has five skilled post players 6-8 or taller, an unprecedented collection in Irvine, in a conference known for tweeners.
"I told my guys we can give them lightning or thunder," Turner said. "If we want to go fast, we can be a lightning-quick team and go small. We can also play big and possibly be a more physically dominant team. We'll play to the interior more and, hopefully, that will make the game easier for all our players."
The 6-8 Davis, back from offseason knee surgery to correct lingering tendinitis, set school records for blocked shots in a game (eight) and season (55) as a freshman, while Best (four points and 1.8 rebounds per game) adds a perimeter shooting touch to the bigs brigade.
Wilder, a vastly undersized four man last season, will shift to the three spot, adding to a seasoned and talented collection of wings that allowed Collin Woods, a freshman last season, to redshirt this season.
Flowers, who led the team in assists (3.2 per game) and averaged 7.8 points in a breakthrough campaign, returns to try to remain the starting point guard.
But sophomore Aaron Wright, who started six of the nine games in which he played before a knee injury ended his freshman season, and freshman Alex Young (nine points and six assists against Vanguard) should also contribute heavily in the backcourt that includes Starring, McNealy and sophomore sharpshooter Travis Souza.
"The strength of our team is going to be our balance and, hopefully, our chemistry," Turner said. "We have the ability to do different things at different spots against different matchups and different opponents. We are going to have a bunch of guys play meaningful minutes."
Turner said he and his staff, on which Ali Ton was promoted to associate head coach, will emphasize aggressiveness on defense, an area Turner believes can stand great improvement.
The schedule, with nonconference games at UCLA, USC, UNLV and Fresno State, as well as a home date with LSU, is also an upgrade.
The Big West slate, which this year includes Hawaii to make it a 10-team conference, begins Dec. 29 at home against UC Davis.
"If we want to change the way it is for us, then we are going to have to have players rise," Turner said. "These guys want to be good, but wanting to be good is one thing; being good is another."