The way Bill Mulligan sees it, this season's Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. basketball race could be billed as "The Big Three and Parity."
"UNLV, Fullerton and San Jose State are at the top," the UC Irvine coach said. "The other seven are all about even."
A fourth-place finish in the senior-laden PCAA this season would be a definite victory for the Anteaters. But if they finish tied for eighth, as the conference coaches predict they will, it will be a major disappointment.
One thing is clear, however: The Anteaters' rise or fall in the bottom seven will hinge on whether their superior shooting can overcome their inferior defense.
It's an annual problem. UCI shot 46% (including 42% from three-point range) from the floor last season and averaged 87 points a game. Opponents shot 50% and averaged 88.
It's a planned problem, really.
"The ideal situation in today's market is to get the great athlete who's a great shooter," Mulligan said. "For those of us who seldom get those kids, there are two options--get the great athlete or get the great shooter. Most times, we can't get the great athlete in school here."
Mulligan knows what it will take for the Anteaters to keep today's PCAA market from crashing on their heads:
"For us to win, these guys are going to have to shoot as well as they can and defend better than they have ever in their lives." THE SHOOTERS
Irvine's newest in a long line of shooting sensations is freshman Justin Anderson, the North Dakota player of the year last season at Valley City High School. According to the UCI coaches, the 6-foot 5-inch guard is shooting 77% from the field in practice.
Anderson was supposed to be the sixth man this season, but has been pressed into a starting role for the first two games. Mulligan suspended Kevin Floyd, who started 21 games last year, for the Freedom Bowl tournament, which begins Friday at UCI's Bren Center.
Don't look for Anderson to replace the 24 points a game Scott Brooks pumped in last season, but, though the rest of his game needs lots of work, Anderson's a confident, pure shooter.
Seniors Wayne Engelstad and Frank Woods are being counted on to carry much of the offensive burden.
Engelstad, a 6-8, 250-pound center who averaged 16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds last season, finally has become the kind of basketball player Mulligan envisioned when he recruited him out of Bosco Tech four years ago.
"He's a really good player," Mulligan said. "I'm really happy with him. He's trying to do everything we ask, and he's trying to be a leader."
Mulligan, however, maintains that his star center is "too fat." Engelstad shrugs it off when he's off the court and does his best to disprove it when he's on. He's nimble and has good instincts underneath and a nice touch from outside.
Woods, a 6-5 forward who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery after last season, has returned to full speed. He started 19 games and averaged 11.7 points (14.6 in conference play) and 6.3 rebounds last season. He's consistent--he scored in double figures in 18 games--and is an excellent free-throw shooter (81%, third best in the conference).
Floyd, a junior transfer from Georgetown who averaged eight points last season, has improved offensively and should be in double figures this season . . . if he can stay out of Mulligan's doghouse.
Forward Mike Doktorczyk, who started 13 games last season, is the Anteaters' second-best outside shooter, but even freshmen such as Chris Cresswell (a 6-3 guard from Merced High School) and Jeff Herdman (a 6-6 forward from Mission Viejo High) have the green light to shoot. And that includes three-pointers. Mulligan recruits shooters, remember.
"I haven't told anybody not to shoot yet," Mulligan said. "They have no conscience when it comes to shooting, and I love it. We just want them to shoot when they're open. We don't want any creations. . . . We don't have anybody who can create, anyway." THE DEFENDERS
In basketball, everybody plays both ways. Some are asked to play a little harder on defense than others, though. Woods and Floyd are two of the players who had been expected to fill that role for Irvine.
"We've got to find somebody who can guard the other team's best players," Mulligan said.
After a 126-92 exhibition victory over a second-division Swedish club team, he's still looking. The Anteaters had worked extra hard on defense in practice, but two players on Club Malbas combined for 75 points in the exhibition.
"If five guys can't stop two, we've got a long way to go," Engelstad said.
Mulligan brought in Andy Andreas--a retired Bobby Knight mentor-turned-disciple--as a volunteer assistant this year to revive the defense. Andreas, who gave Knight his first assistant coaching job at a high school in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, later served under Knight at Indiana.
"I think there's been improvement, but it's going to be a slow process," he said, "The philosophy is basically the same, although we've added a few more wrinkles. We've just drilled more and put more emphasis on defense.