IRVINE — After six months of waiting, and joking that he wondered whether he wanted to know the truth, Rod Baker finally got his first real look at his UC Irvine basketball team when practice began in mid-October.
"Our guards can guard ," Baker said the next day, showing his enthusiasm for the defensive potential of the Anteater perimeter players. "And our forwards," he went on, feigning a grope for words, "can forward."
That's about the size of it. Irvine has quickness and depth at guard, but inside, the Anteaters are lacking size and experience. Baker takes over as Irvine's coach with the remnants of an 11-19 team that is being picked to finish ninth in the Big West Conference.
This is a team that might be able to do better, however. Baker is demanding tough defense in a program that has been casual about that part of the game. He also is trying to improve shot selection for a team that, at times, thought the only bad shot was the shot not taken.
In the backcourt, Baker has Gerald McDonald and Craig Marshall, both starters last season. A plus--a big plus--is that transfer Keith Stewart, who has started games at Purdue and Marquette, will become eligible by the season's fifth game, against Loyola Marymount.
McDonald, the starting point guard last season, carries the unlikely distinction of being the team's leading returning scorer.
Jeff Herdman, a three-point specialist, and center Ricky Butler were seniors last season. Guard Dylan Rigdon, who was a sophomore, transferred to Arizona. When those three left, an average of 48 points a game walked out the door.
McDonald, a senior who shot only 34% from the field last season and 64% from the free throw line, averaged 8.4 points.
The team's best inside player is Jeff Von Lutzow, a 6-foot-9 junior forward whose up-and-down season last year ended with an outstanding 27-point performance against Utah State in the final game. He averaged 8.3 points, but only 3.4 rebounds.
Irvine's center will be Don May, a 6-9 senior who appeared in 30 games last season but averaged fewer than two points and two rebounds. May's backup is Uzoma Obiekea, who transferred after U.S. International dropped its program. Baker is crossing his fingers that Elgin Rogers, a senior, and Khari Johnson, a sophomore, will emerge at forward. Both are outstanding athletes who have had difficulty settling in on the court. Gabe Higa, a junior with three-point range, and freshman Elzie Love add depth.
The perimeter is the clear strength of this team, but games may well be won or lost because of interior defense and rebounding.
Baker, an assistant at Seton Hall before taking the Irvine job, doesn't hesitate to put his guards in a category with some of those in the Big East Conference.
"Every one of our guys are as athletic as Big East guards, they're just not as physical," Baker said, "not so much in giving it out, but in taking it. Let's say I'm trying to bring the ball up the floor. A lot of Big East guards can get it to the spot where we want it to be, and not be pushed off their mark."
Besides McDonald, a senior, Irvine has Marshall, a junior who is a good leaper and an excellent defender with more offensive potential than he has shown.
Stewart, a two-time transfer, has quickness and a dependable outside shot, plus big-game experience. After several disciplinary problems in his career--he was officially kicked off the Marquette team after being accused of falling asleep during a film session, a charge he denies--he appears dedicated to rescuing his career this season.
David Hollaway, a senior with scoring ability, and Zuri Williams, a freshman point guard who seems to have some composure, add depth.
Two of the better guards on the floor during practice aren't eligible this season. Lloyd Mumford, a transfer from Villanova, and California transfer Keith Walker will be eligible next season, when Irvine's prospects should improve considerably.
As for this year, there are good days and bad days.
"So much of what we're doing is new, it's important we're precise," Baker said. "We're trying to teach perfect so we can get good. We're trying not to be down about not getting good yet."
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