But with a workman-like 72-54 win over Cal State Fullerton in its home conference opener on Thursday at the Bren Events Center, the Anteaters are finally beginning to actually look the part.
With the victory, UCI extended its wining streak to five, all in January, and is now 12-7, 3-0 in the Big West. The 3-0 start is good for a tie for first with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is UCI's best start in conference play since the 2005-06 squad opened 8-0 against Big West foes.
"I liked the way we played tonight," UCI Coach Russell Turner said. "I thought we imposed our will on them with the inside game … and Chris McNealy had a big game tonight [sinking eight of 12 field-goal attempts, including three of four from beyond the arc to produce a game-high 22 points]. It was fun to watch him do that, because of all the sacrifices he has made in the time he has been here. He's a great kid and a senior captain who is leading the program because he is a winning player."
Mamadou Ndiaye, a 7-foot-6 freshman center, came within one rebound of a double-double, junior Will Davis was two rebounds shy of a double-double. Freshman guard Alex Young matched his career high with nine assists for the winners.
The Anteaters made the winning plays more often than not on both ends. They built a 38-18 advantage on points in the paint, posted a 43-26 rebounding edge, shot 50% from the field and held the Titans to 36% field-goal shooting, including three for 20 from threedom (15%).
"One of the reasons you play a zone is to take away the threes," Turner said. "A lot of people don't look at it that way. What I found particularly gratifying about our zone defense tonight is that you can't play good zone defense if you aren't together, if you are not connected on the floor with five guys talking and moving together and fighting, then finishing plays with rebounds."
Ndiaye had 10 points and nine rebounds, though he was limited to 19 minutes due to foul trouble.
Davis had 11 points and eight rebounds, while McNealy added four rebounds and two assists to his biggest scoring output since a career-high 27 points in the season opener.
After the Titans (6-10, 1-1) took a 15-13 lead, UCI, which has won three straight at home and is 19-4 at home over the last two seasons, used a 16-2 run to establish control.
The Anteaters led, 37-21, at halftime. And, after Fullerton, led by senior guard Mike Williams' 18 points, closed to within 54-42 with 9:51 left, UCI held the visitors the next 6:34 without a field goal. The Titan's shooting drought included a 9-0 UCI run that created a 67-44 advantage with 5:06 left that allowed Turner to play several reserves.
Turner said the front-runner label is something that can have an adverse effect on a team. And, like most coaches, he does not pay it much mind.
"I don't want think about that," Turner said of remaining atop the conference standings. "That's for the fans and the media and I understand, but what we've got to do is keep getting better. We've got a long way to go to get better and that's what I think about.
"We have a team that sees we can be good and we have a team that recognized that early in the season, we might have gotten a little too full of ourselves to win tough home games. We won one tonight and that's good progress."
Add Cal State Fullerton to the list of believers that UCI could be in the Big West title race for the long haul.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 72, Cal State Fullerton 54
CSF – Horne 2, McClellan 2, Williams 18, Harris 12, Blackwell 2, Gentry 6, Brandon 3, Versteeg 3, Boyd 3, Johnson 3.
3-pt. goals – Williams 2, Harris 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Davis 11, Ndiaye 10, McNealy 22, Nelson 6, Young 3, Ryan 6, Best 6, Souza 3, Dunning 3, Wright 2.
3-pt. goals – McNealy 3, Souza 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 37-21.