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This Year, It’s an All In Mentality for Russell Turner and the Anteaters

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Russell Turner, head coach of the UC Irvine men’s basketball team, is entering his 13th season at the helm of the program. Since taking over in 2010, Turner has led the Anteaters to a record of 242-158, including six postseason appearances in that time. He is a four-time Big West Conference Coach of the Year, and has led the Anteaters to the NCAA tournament twice in 2015 and 2019. 

“We’ve sustained success for quite a long time now in our program since I’ve been coach here,” Turner said. “It’s really hard to do that. But the formula is not that difficult to understand. We’ve got to have real commitment to competing every day. You’ve got to have depth that develops. We’ve got to have belief in what’s possible. And we’ve got to do the things that are hard. We got to defend, we got to rebound over and over again and we got to do that in ways that utilize our players’ intelligence, character and commitment. We’re working every day trying to get better.”

The Anteaters are coming off a disappointing season, falling to UC Santa Barbara in the first round of the Big West last year, a team that defeated the Anteaters in the championship game the season before. Tensions are high for the ‘Eaters after two seasons of failing to make it to the NCAA tournament, and there is a lot of pressure on the team and Turner, to deliver and get the Anteaters back to the tournament. 

“You know, we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “We were really good last year early and then weren’t able to sustain it. So we’re at the beginning of the journey with this group. But I like what I’ve seen so far from this group.”

The task for Turner and the team will be harder than ever after the departure of three-time first team All Big West talent Collin Welp. Without Welp, who averaged almost 14 points per game last season, the Anteaters will have to search elsewhere for scoring this season. 

“Collin was one of the greatest players to ever play at UC Irvine.And I’m so grateful to him, and I feel so responsible for our team not performing at the level I believe we could at the end of his career,” Turner said. “This year we have a lot of different guys who can contribute in the games. But also, every guy on our team can step forward better and more as a leader than what we collectively did last year.” 

One of the players who has stepped up to fill the scoring void early on in the season is junior guard DJ Davis, who averaged almost nine points for the Anteaters last season and through three games this season has 16.3 points per game making 38.5% of his shots from the floor. 

Another big player for the Anteaters this season will be redshirt sophomore forward Devin Tillis, who sat out all of last season with a torn meniscus. 

“Last season it really hurt me because I felt like I couldn’t give my teammates everything I got,” Tillis said. “You know, you can clap from the bench and put out as much energy as you can, but it’s not the same. This year, like preparing and going into this year, I was like, I’m gonna be the best teammate I can be. I’m gonna play as hard as I can and I’m gonna bust my butt for the guys out there… we want to win every game so I’m gonna play like a guy that wants to win.”

Tillis said him and his teammates have especially become closer this year by bonding over video games such as Call of Duty: Warzone.

“I feel like the way I play compliments everyone,” he said. “Off the court, me, DJ and Dawson, you know, we’re playing Warzone. We got the communication out there. You know, you see a lot of NFL guys talking about it. That stuff’s real. Like it builds chemistry and when I’m out there it’s like yo, I got you, I know where you’re at. I feel like I’m good at playmaking and getting my teammates shots.”

When asked about his faith in his coaching staff, Tillis replied, “I love my coaching staff. They’re dogs. Turner’s a dog. At the end of the day, I know he’s got my back, there’s no other person I’d rather play for in the country.”

Starting sophomore center Bent Leuchten also touched on his faith in the coaches, specifically Turner. 

“Coach Turner gives me the green light,” Leuchten said. “He has faith in me and I respect him for it.”

Turner said he cares about each of his players, as if they are part of his family. 

“I try to treat these guys exactly the way I treat my kids,” he said. “That means I am demanding, and I’m demanding primarily of things that I think that can help them be better people. I think we’ve got a good record of helping guys become better and better people. That’s hard work, as any parent can tell you.” 

In the offseason, the Anteaters also added a key piece in transfer senior guard Pierre Crockrell II, who plays a key role in managing the floor and slowing down the pace of the game at the point guard position; and junior forward Chazz Hutchison, a transfer from Fullerton College, who adds rim protection and athleticism off the bench for the Anteaters. 

“I’ve taken on a really big defensive role this year, I especially take pride in that,” Hutchison said. “But, you know, being able to get comfortable on both ends of the floor, running, high energy. That’s what I do best.”

The team is also returning the majority of their core players from last year alongside Davis, including redshirt senior forward JC Butler, junior guard Dawson Baker, redshirt junior guard Justin Hohn, senior forward Dean Keeler, redshirt junior guard Ofure Ujadughele and junior guard Andre Henry.

Of those returning players, Baker has helped add to this season’s scoring for the Anteaters, averaging 14.7 points per game through the first three contests after only averaging 11.2 points per game last year.

“I think in small ways, it’s been a little bit different [from last year],” he said. “We got new guys, so playing with them is a little bit different. So my role depending on who’s handling the ball, and who I’m playing with has been a little bit different. Now I can find more ways to score and make plays, and have my mark on the game and be more of a leader, being one of the older guys on the team.”

Hohn, the team’s starting point guard from last year, talked about how his role has changed with the addition of Crockrell, to becoming more of a scoring threat off the bench this year.

“I’m bought into my role, I think everyone else is as well,” he said. “I love that second unit. I think we bring a different element of energy and defense to the game that might, you know, impose our will on the other team and you know, break them down more and more. And that, I think that’s where we’ve been finding our success within our two groups.”

For the Anteaters, the main goal this season will be winning the Big West Conference Tournament and returning to play in March Madness, the annual invite only tournament of the nation’s top 68 teams at the end of the year. However, Turner acknowledged that the team still has a lot of work left to achieve this goal.

“Well, the win against Oregon can only work against us. I think in terms of our mentality,” he said. “I mean, we won against Oregon because we were hungry and competitive…  And so hopefully what we can do is have the same sort of mentality and engagement at home as we did or threatened to on the road.”

Now, three games into the season, after big wins against Chapman and Loyola Marymount University (LMU) at home and a victory over 21st ranked Oregon in Eugene, the Anteaters are sitting at 3-0, and have received votes in the AP Top 25 Poll for the first time in three years. However, Turner has urged his players not to get caught up in emotions this early in the season, as there is still a lot of basketball left to be played. 

“The guys were definitely excited to win that game against Oregon,” Turner said. “Number one, we don’t get the opportunity to do that very often. Number two, to pull it off and have it go the way that it did where we controlled you know, a nationally ranked team and a perennially powerful program you know, something that’s not easy to do. Now, what I want to see is if we can handle that success, because it’s not easy for young guys to do that.”

“The hardest thing to handle is success,” Turner added. “So we are coming off a short period of success. We need to handle it well.”  

You can keep up with the Anteaters throughout the rest of the season on ESPN+, as they look for their third trip to the NCAA tournament in 13 seasons.

James Huston is a 2022-23 Sports Co-Editor. He can be reached at hustonj@uci.edu