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Faulkner: UCI opens title quest

January 07, 2014|By Barry Faulkner

Polls are tools some college basketball coaches use for whatever task they deem most important at the time. A favorable ranking can boost confidence, yet prompt a warning against complacency, while a snub can add to the motivational fire for any program.

The UC Irvine men's team earned the top preseason ranking in the Big West, placing the proverbial target on the Anteaters' backs as the team to beat.

But UCI's favorite status has been altered somewhat as the opening of Big West Conference play looms on Thursday. The Anteaters (9-7) are still considered among the teams that could contend for a regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

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But the strong starts of Hawaii (11-3) and UC Santa Barbara (9-4), as well as the emergence of UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb at Long Beach State (4-10), has added to their credible cases for eventual supremacy in the nine-team conference.

UCI Coach Russell Turner, for one, has no illusions about any weight the preseason poll may carry. When asked after Saturday's final nonconference tuneup against San Diego Christian, a 91-56 home win, if the 'Eaters deserved to be ranked No. 1 if a new poll were taken before Thursday, Turner did not mince words.

"I don't know and I don't care," Turner said, "because the great thing about college sports is that it gets decided in the rectangle. We'll have a crack at that, beginning Thursday."

UCI opens at three-time defending conference champion Long Beach State, for which a poor record is somewhat misleading. The 49ers, who include Lamb, a 6-foot-5 junior guard (20.8 points per game in his four games since becoming eligible), and returning first-team all-conference honoree Mike Caffey (16.9 ppg), a 6-0 junior guard, have sustained losses to Arizona, Michigan, Kansas State, Washington, North Carolina State and Missouri.

The game tips off at 8 p.m.

"I'm surprised by people who are critical of Long Beach because of its record," Turner said. "They are a really good team and anyone who doesn't know that is foolish."

Turner was also asked what he was most pleased about heading into conference play.

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