With a team picked to win the Big West Conference and possibly earn the program's first NCAA Tournament berth, expectations are clearly high around the UC Irvine men's basketball program this season.
But as the opening moments of the Anteaters' 89-61 exhibition victory over Chapman proved to a crowd of 1,601 at the Bren Events Center on Saturday night, the level of play has also been raised.
UCI, for which 7-foot-6 freshman Mamadou Ndiaye started along with 6-8 Will Davis, scored its first three baskets on dunks and generally extended its existence above the rim on the defense end as well, blocking multiple shots to at least temporarily overwhelm the Division III Panthers.
Ndiaye needed 28 seconds to rattle the rim, catching the first pass to him deep in the post, turning and flushing the ball, as well as any notion that things are not altogether different around a program that ended a 27-year drought without a postseason victory last March.
Davis, added a pair of dunks to propel the hosts toward a 22-7 advantage.
"I thought we were ready to play," said UCI Coach Russell Turner, who played the starters about half the game and distributed double-figure minutes to 12 of his 13 available players. "I thought we had good energy and I thought we were unselfish. And all those things are really important."
Important also, Davis said, was to justify a growing buzz around this team, which has uncommon length in the front court and a depth of talent in the backcourt that is generally atypical for a Big West squad.
"The thing I worry about with this team is our urgency," said Turner, who was pleased with the level of energy provided by a crowd that included a large contingency of students. "The whole thing with expectations is new with our program, so being able to perform, despite people suggesting you are already there, is hard for young players, young people. So what I wanted to see more than anything was that energy and desperation to perform. You have to have that to really have anything else. And it's not easy to have that."
Ndiaye, perhaps displaying more promise than urgency, collected nine points, including three of UCI's seven dunks, seven rebounds and five blocked shots in a tidy 16 minutes. He netted four of six field-goal tries, including a swooping dunk that hinted at the unprecedented capacity of his unique physique.
Davis had 10 points, six rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes, while 6-10 junior John Ryan came off the bench to produce 15 points, seven rebounds and one block. Ryan, who got in on the dunk-fast, as did 7-2 freshman Ioannis Dimakapoulos, sank seven of his nine shots from the field.
Senior Chris McNealy made five of seven field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws on his way to 17 points, adding three assists, two steals, one block and no turnovers to his commanding 22 minutes.
Sophomore guard Alex Young, who was without future running mate Luke Nelson, a freshman from England who sat out with a mild injury, had six points, five assists and four rebounds while orchestrating with the kind of mastery that helped him earn Co-Freshman of the Year in the Big West last season.
Junior starter Travis Souza (five points), 6-10 junior Mike Best (eight points on four-of-five shooting from the field, three rebounds and one assist), and freshman guard Jaron Martin (five points, two steals and two assists without a turnover in 17 minutes) were additional standouts for the winners, who were also without injured sophomore Dominique Dunning.
"I was really pleased [with Ndiaye]," Turner said of potentially the program's most heralded recruit ever. "He was not perfect, but he is a dominating factor at times. He got tired because he played so hard and that's exactly what I expect from him. I think he's a factor that teams have to deal with that is undeniable."
UCI shot 58.1% from the field, despite a two-for-14 performance from three-point range, amassed a 36-23 rebounding advantage, had just six turnovers to Chapman's 14, had a 58-18 windfall with points in the paint and a 42-16 bulge in bench scoring.
Chapman junior starter John Joyce, a 6-8 transfer from Orange Coast College who played at Corona del Mar High, made seven of 11 field-goal tries to finish with 14 points.
"[Joyce, who averaged 3.8 points and 2.0 rebounds at OCC] had a good game in a game that's not easy to play well, when you're giving away all that size," Turner said.
UCI opens its regular season on Friday at home against Fresno State. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.
UC Irvine 89, Chapman 61
Chap – Joyce 14, Atwater 2, Zavrsnick 18, Hamasaki 6, James 3, Young 8, N. Dragovich 4, Kubly 3, Rider 2, Fidelibus 1.
3-pt. goals – Young 1, Kubly 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
UCI – Davis 10, Ndiaye 9, McNealy 17, Young 6, Souza 5, Ryan 15, Best 8, Dimakopoulos 6, Martin 5, McConnell 5, Wright 2, Ray 1.
3-pt. goals – Souza 1, McNealy 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 42-23.Copyright © 2015, CT Now