UC Irvine, a Big West Conference member, opened its season on Monday with a 79-65 loss to Illinois, a nationally-ranked Big Ten squad. The Anteaters are led by new head coach Russell Turner, who comes to Irvine with an NBA pedigree after spending the last six years as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors. Turner is fortunate to have 12 letterwinners returning from last year's 14-18 squad.
Today's game marks the season opener for USC, which welcomes back only two starters from last season's 16-14 team. The club finished 8-10 versus Pac-10 opposition and hopes for a better showing in 2010-11, although expectations of fans and the media are tempered. Coach Kevin O'Neill is a hard-nosed, defensive-minded coach, and he demands the same kind of mentality from his players.
USC owns a 5-1 series lead over UC Irvine, which includes a 70-57 triumph over the Anteaters in 2008.
The player to watch for UC Irvine is junior forward Eric Wise, a two-time All- Big West Second Team pick who last year led the club in scoring (16.3 ppg), rebounding (6.5 rpg) and assists (3.0 apg), the first Anteater to accomplish that feat in 37 years. In the 14-point loss to Illinois earlier this week, Wise was limited to 11 points, although he did rip down 12 rebounds in 33 minutes of action. Darren Moore paced the Anteaters with 18 points on the strength of a 3-of-5 effort from three-point range, and Patrick Rembert totaled 12 points. Irvine shot just 34.9 percent from the field in the clash, including a 7-of-20 effort from three-point range, and the team struggled at the defensive end, permitting Illinois to make good on 50 percent of its field goal attempts. That disparity was the most obvious reason for the loss.
Last season, the Trojans led the Pac-10 in scoring defense, limiting foes to 57.2 ppg on 38.4 percent shooting from the field. The question is whether or not there is enough offensive firepower in the fold to lift USC to contender status. Nikola Vucevic was named the league's most improved player last season, as he netted 10.7 ppg and led the conference with 9.4 rpg. Vucevic is a solid shot-blocker as well and can be counted on for production every time out. Senior Alex Stephenson joins Vucevic up front, and he hopes to improve on the 8.4 ppg and 7.2 rpg he posted last season. This USC team will take on a totally different look in December when Jio Fontan, a Fordham transfer, becomes eligible. Fontan is a 6-0 junior with explosive quickness who can score and distribute, exactly what this team needs. Today, however, other guards must step up.
The edge goes to USC in this one, as the combo of Vucevic and Stephenson will get the job done. Expect the Trojans to pull away in the second half.
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