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UC Irvine looks to ride its defense back to the NCAA Tournament

Mid-Major Madness checks in with Russell Turner and the Anteaters.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Kansas State vs UC Irvine Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

IRVINE, CA — Russell Turner takes defense seriously.

“Be creative with your stops,” the UC Irvine head coach yelled during a summer practice in August. “Be creative and use your imagination for all details.”

He emphasized the importance of staying focused and reading plays, not simply guessing. This practice wasn’t any different from his usual coaching style. His high expectations and attention to detail have helped the Anteaters find consistency no matter the circumstances.

UC Irvine finished the 2020-21 campaign with an 18-9 record and an appearance in the program’s fourth straight Big West title game. The Anteaters had the second youngest team in the nation, but also had one of the best defenses in the country.

The Anteaters had the fourth-best field goal percentage defense (38.7) and ranked 25th in scoring defense, holding opponents to 63.4 points per game.

This coming season, the team will no longer have 6’11 center Brad Greene, the Big West Defensive Player of the Year who led the conference with 1.93 blocks per game, to rely on. Greene made a big impact on the team, but Turner said he believes the defensive strength will continue as other guys fill the role.

It’s not that Turner only recruits players who are known for their defense, but he does expect everyone who plays for him to learn. This includes Dawson Baker, who certainly turned some heads last season.

“That’s the area I needed to improve the most in,” Baker said. “I knew it was going to be a challenge but coach Turner helped me a lot with team defense and to pay attention and focus on the details that help me be in the right places at the right time.”

Turner said Baker made a huge improvement on defense, but his game as a whole earned him respect around the league.

Baker was named the 2020-21 Big West Freshman of the Year. He played in 25 games, 17 as a starter, while averaging 23.5 minutes per game. His 10.7 point average made him the second leading scorer on the team.

“I knew Baker would be good but I didn’t know he would be as good as he was.” Turner said.

Even Baker himself said he didn’t see it coming, but last year certainly taught him a lot about what is possible. He said his goal for next season is to make the All-Conference Team, and maybe even earn Player of the Year honors.

The key player for the Anteaters might be redshirt senior Collin Welp.

The 6’7 forward has been with UC Irvine since 2017. He redshirted his first season, but played in all 37 games the following year. Welp has shown improvement throughout the years and has become one of the best players in the conference.

He led his team in scoring and rebounding last season with 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. In March, Welp was named to the All-Big West First Team for the second time in his career. His skills on the court will be needed, but it’s also no secret that his leadership role will be bigger than ever.

“I am coming into my fifth year now so I’m a vet,” Welp said. “I’m taking care of all these guys, showing them the ropes. I would say I’m a person who likes to lead by showing.”

Baker said Welp teaches by example. The senior spends a lot of time in the gym, and although he doesn't talk much off the court, he is a vocal leader in practices and games.

Welp will be the only senior on the team, but Turner has no doubt he will be able to handle more responsibilities.

“He’s ready for that role, he was a captain last year along with Brad Greene. Right now he is by far the most experienced guy in the program.” Turner said. “He is going to have a lot to do with how good we are.”

The roster also counts four juniors. Isaiah Lee is one of them, and one of the returning starters.

The 6’2 guard played in 27 games and started 26. Lee led the team in assists with a total of 54, as well as in three-point shooting percentage at 40%.

Although the team will still look young on paper with eight sophomores and three freshmen, Turner said UC Irvine has a lot more experience now.

“I joke that we have 12 freshmen now,” the coach said. “We have three third-year freshmen, six second-year freshmen and three first-year freshmen. That’s a result of the redshirt rule. I think we are an interesting combination of youth, hunger, potential and experience.”

Turner said he hopes his team learned from its losses last season, especially in the Big West championship game against UC Santa Barbara. That was one of only five games in the entire season in which the Anteaters gave up more than 70 points. The Gauchos shot 50% from the field and hit eight three-pointers that night.

The coach said his team didn’t play its best defense during that game, and pointed out that the offense had been a struggle all season.

“We got beat by a team who was better than we were,” Turner said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I do know that in the past that has propelled a young group to improve. I think that’s what we are going to have this year.”

Turner is confident the defense will continue to be strong, but said he also expects the offense to be significantly better with returning players and newcomers stepping up.

He said Devin Tillis, a transfer from UNLV, could make an impact right away. The 6’6 forward didn’t fill the stat sheet during his freshman season with the Rebels. He only took 58 shots, but made 53.4% of those and also made 18 out of 19 free throw attempts. He is not a flashy player but he can pass, work hard on defense and has potential to be a good shooter.

Whether it’s a newcomer like Tillis, a veteran like Welp or a young star like Baker, Turner has high expectations for each player on the roster and some big goals to accomplish.

“Our goal is to advance in the NCAA Tournament, and I say that carefully. It used to be just to make it,” Turner said. “Now we think we got a team that is good enough, potentially, to advance if we can make it.”