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38 days ‘til opening day: Massive yet again, UC Irvine looks to reload in the Big West

NCAA Basketball: Big West Conference Tournament-UC Davis vs UC Irvine Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 10 couldn’t come soon enough.

As we slide through the final weeks before college basketball returns, we’ll look at one storyline about the upcoming season that lines up with the number of days until opening day. Keep coming back to see if we have the creativity and dedication to pull this off. No promises.

It’s Oct. 3 and we’re just 38 days from opening day.

Today the countdown heads west, talking about bigs.

UC Irvine has been the class of the Big West under Russell Turner. The Anteaters have won at least 20 games in each of the last five seasons, and rolled out three consecutive top-92 KenPom teams between 2014-16. They’ve also made three league tournament title game appearances in that span, highlighted by a championship in 2015.

But what, you may ask, does that have to do with the number “38?”

The Anteaters won a regular season title last year, and came within a possession of another NCAA berth, with the Big West’s best three-point shooting team. During league play, UC Irvine hit 38.9 percent of its long distance attempts, a mark that fueled the conference’s most efficient offense.

Much of that shooting prowess, however, ran out of eligibility. Departing senior guards Jaron Martin (14.1 PPG, 40.3% on 186 3PA) and Luke Nelson (16.9 PPG. 42.7% on 117 3PA) were the Anteaters’ primary outside threats and top two scorers.

Does that plunge the team into the rebuilding muck? Not necessarily, as UC Irvine is our preseason favorite in the league, and defense and bigs are part of the reason why.

The Anteaters have made their living under Turner with defense, particularly a bruising interior defense that prevents easy opportunities around the basket. Since 2013, UC Irvine has ranked in the top-18 nationally in two-point defense, including finishing at fourth in the country a season ago.

Gigantic 7’6’’ center Mamadou Ndiaye (2013-16) is probably the best-known Anteater rim protector, but there have been many. That includes 7’2’’ center Ioannis Dimakopoulos, who averaged 10.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last year as a senior. He, like Martin and Nelson, is gone, but Turner has reinforcements.

He talked about Dimakopoulos and his frontcourt last January, which included three players that’ll be back: junior Jonathan Galloway and sophomores Brad Greene and Tommy Rutherford.

“That’s the great thing about having four of them,” said Anteaters coach Russ Turner, whose team is 6-0 in the Big West and has won its past eight games.

“If it looks like they’re tired or they’re not going hard, I can put another guy in. (Freshman) John Edgar is the fifth guy that I’m using, even though he’s not a traditional big guy. And he probably plays harder than any of them.”

CSUN coach Reggie Theus gave the opposing perspective after a 32-point loss.

“They really play well together. They know their roles and the biggest part is, I think their bigs play hard,” Theus said, with an emphasis. “And they’re physical. And I think that is the overriding difference. When a team comes in and gets 17 offensive rebounds … that’s a lot.”

Galloway (4.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG) will headline the group in 2017-18. The junior is one of the league’s best rebounders and shot blockers, and has DPOY potential. Rutherford (6.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Greene (3.0 RPG in just 8.9 MPG) will see expanded roles, and get help from now-eligible Utah State transfer Elston Jones. The junior was a legitimate part of the rotation over his two years in Logan, and had a nice game against UC Irvine in Dec. 2016 (8 points, 6 rebounds).

The Anteaters will almost certainly, and understandably, take a step back in 2017-18. But there’s a tradition of interior excellence that Turner and his group of bigs have to fall back on.