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UC IRVINE NOTEBOOK / JOHN WEYLER : Zone Defense Might Have Helped Anteaters During Regular Season

March 15, 1994|JOHN WEYLER

The Anteaters' mad dash for a worst-to-first conclusion to their 1993-94 roller-coaster ride brings up a few questions:

--Where was this zone defense when they were losing seven in a row, and 11 of 13?

--Could an appearance in the Big West Tournament final mean a contract extension for Coach Rod Baker?

--And where do we go from here?

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Tempo, tempo: Baker clung to his tempo-dictating, man-to-man and pressing defenses like a guy hanging from a ledge on the 20th story. His steadfast conviction that Irvine's athleticism and depth would wear opponents down might have been a mistake.

Irvine succeeded at forcing most opponents to play at a fast pace, but the Anteaters also won only four games in conference and ended up chasing the other team into a layup too often. They always pushed the ball up the court but usually wound up with fewer fast-break baskets than their opponents.

Shooters such as guard Chris Brown--who almost shot the Anteaters into the NCAA tournament with 24 three-point field goals in four games and had a school-record 122 on the season--are rare. But the Big West is loaded with guys who can run and jump and excel against a man-to-man match-up.

You have to give Baker credit for adjusting in the tournament, however.

"We've played more zone in the last three days than we have all year," he admitted after Irvine beat Pacific in the semifinals. And the Anteaters played the zone almost exclusively during their loss in the final to New Mexico State.

Why didn't they play the zone more during the season?

"If we did, would we be where we are right now?" Baker asked.

Maybe the whole season was a ploy to surprise the rest of the conference in the tournament. If so, Baker's a genius. After finishing the regular season with a 7-19 record, that 10-20 looks pretty darn good.

Unfortunately for Baker, the second consecutive 4-14 Big West record will not go unnoticed by Athletic Director Dan Guerrero when he and Baker sit down to "evaluate."

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A season of grace: Four dream days in March aren't going to earn a contract extension for Baker, who will be in the fourth year of a four-year contract that Irvine can't afford to buy out next season.

What Baker needs is a reversal of fortune in 1994-95.

On most nights, the Anteaters slit their own throats, but they did lose three times in overtime, three times by two points, once by four, once by five and twice by six.

A play here. A call there. The ball figures to bounce the other way once in a while. But Irvine was 0 for overtime and 0 for three when one basket decided the game.

Clearly, the Anteaters aren't that far away. Their tournament blitz exhibited their potential and put a little fear in the Big West powers-that-be. But it's only a jumping-off point.

Baker will need more than a handful of victories to persuade Guerrero that he deserves an extension.

"I don't worry about my job," Baker said. "It's really not an issue for me because I won't make the decision of whether or not I coach at UCI.

"But we do what we do and we're not going to stop doing what we think is right. And maybe we proved this week that what we do ain't half bad."

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Wait 'til next year: Baker and Co.'s focus now turns to recruiting. Inside help is already on the way.

Kevin Simmons, a 6-foot-8 forward from Redemption Christian Academy in Troy, N.Y., committed during the early signing period and should help offset the loss of center DeForrest Boyer. Boyer shot 65% from the field, averaged 11.3 points and 6.3 rebounds and blocked 52 shots this season.

Returning to the front line are LaDay Smith, who became a starter late in the season because of his defense and rebounding; Jermaine Avie, No. 3 on the team in minutes played and No. 1 in rebounding (6.7), and Shaun Battle, who seems to wait until the final month of the season before deciding to play.

The perimeter shooting spots are pretty much set with Chris Brown, the nation's most prolific three-point shooter (4.7 per game) and the team's leading scorer (17.4); Todd Whitehead, fifth on the team in scoring (7.5), and Mark Odsather, second in three-pointers with 47 on the season.

Lloyd (Fudge) Mumford, the grit and soul of the '93-94 team who set a school record with 171 assists this season, leaves a legacy of acrobatic drives and an unabashed love for the game.

He also leaves a large void. Zuri Williams is a good ballhandler, usually makes good decisions and plays solid defense. But his lack of offense is too great a liability to make him the No. 1 point guard.

Baker needs a quick, smart point guard who's at least a threat to shoot outside if left unattended. The coach is scouring the community college ranks for the right man.

Mumford sees a bright future. Of course, this guy makes Big Bird seem a pessimist.

"It's hard for me to see past the disappointment now," Mumford said after his last game, "but I feel good about what we did together as a team in the tournament. We showed some people what we're capable of.

"It's something these guys can share with the new guys, something they can all build on."

Anteater Notes

The golf team finished second in the 44th Southern California Intercollegiate Golf Championships at Torrey Pines Friday and Saturday. Nine teams competed in the university division, which was won by Cal State San Bernardino (601). Irvine shot 610. Irvine's Paul Calabrase shot a 74-76--150 to tie for second place.

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