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New Faces Mark a New Era for UC Irvine Men’s Basketball 

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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for grammar and clarity.

The 2023-24 Men’s Basketball season marks the start of a new era for head coach Russell Turner’s UC Irvine Anteaters. The Anteaters spent the summer bolstering their roster as the team was left in a precarious position following the end of the last season. 

The Anteaters greatly exceeded expectations in the 2022-23 season by winning a share of the regular season Big West Conference Championship.. During the offseason, leading scorers, DJ Davis and Dawson Baker, declared for the transfer portal, with Davis landing at Butler University and Baker at Brigham Young University. The Anteaters took a blow due to this as the dynamic duo had just completed their most illustrious season. 

Davis earned himself a spot on the All-Big West First Team, averaging 15 points per game, and was named Big West player for the week of Nov. 14. He was crowned MVP of the Las Vegas Holiday Classic and finished with multiple top 10 placings in the Big West Conference scoring metrics, such as three-pointers per game (1st), overall scoring (8th) and overall free throw percentage (1st). 

Baker also made a name for himself. He earned a spot on the All-Big West Second Team, landed a spot on the Big West Conference Championship All-Tournament Team and became the 32nd player in UCI history to reach 1,000 points. He also led the team in scoring with 15.3 points per game and put up double-digit numbers for 26 consecutive games

The contribution the two provided for UCI was impeccable and their services will be missed. Their departures left a huge hole, but not one that couldn’t be filled. 

“I don’t think there’s anybody on our team that believes anything other than a better team this year than we were last year,” Turner said in an interview with the New University. “We’ve improved with some of the new guys we’ve added, but we’ve also improved with the guys who were part of last year’s team.”

During the offseason, UCI was active in the recruiting market and signed five new faces to the team, four of which are first-years. The Anteaters inked first-year guards Jurian Dixon, Derin Saran and Ben Egbo, as well as first-year forward Carter Welling, and graduate guard Dylan Thoerner.

As a three time CIF state champion and two time league MVP at St. Augustine High School in San Diego, Dixon hopes to continue and build upon his high school success at UC Irvine.

“ [I plan on] taking what I learned in high school and making sure to apply myself at the college level,” Dixon said. “[I] just [want to] stay confident in what I can do and what I know, the biggest thing is making sure I [guard] both sides of the floor, on the defensive and offensive sides of the ball.”

Saran, a dual threat guard from Istanbul, Turkey was both a three-time conference champion in high school and a North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year nominee his senior season.

“I think I’m just an all-around player, I can contribute in every way possible offensively and defensively,” Saran said. “As a point guard, I’m able to get my teammates involved and really get them open shots.”

Carter Welling, the brother of sophomore forward Hayden Welling and First Team All-State at Corner Canyon High School in Draper, Utah, just returned from a two year Latter-day Saints church mission trip. He expressed his excitement to return to the court and join his brother in the stacked Anteater frontcourt this season after not having the opportunity to play together despite attending the same high school.

“In high school, we never really had the chance to be on the court at the same time together, just because we played the same position. And so, to be here at Irvine and to be able to play with each other is a blessing,” Carter said.

Egbo, an open division state champion at Perry High School in Gilbert, Ariz. and 2023 6A Conference Defensive Player of the Year, joins a hungry class of Anteater guards this season.

“The older guys have brought us younger guys along, taught us a lot of stuff that they’ve learned from the coaching staff. The coaching staff is obviously why I came here. I felt a winning culture and I’ve just learned to enjoy it, learn from it and make the most of the opportunity that I’ve been given,” Egbo said. 

Thoerner, a local Beckham High School product, is a talented shooter from Tufts University, Mass. that brings his veteran experience of playing in the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Championship to last season to UCI.

“I know that every year [the Anteaters] win and compete for championships, which is what I wanted to do, and it’s close to home as well,” Thoerner said. “Experience, leadership, being able to handle pressure on the court and especially shooting —  that’s what the coaches have been telling me to work and focus on.” 

The Anteaters also have some notable returning players from last year’s team. Redshirt senior guard Justin Hohn and fifth year guard Pierre Crockrell II played heavy minutes last season as the team’s number one and two point guards. Senior guard Andre Henry will take on a more expanded role in the offense following the departure of the leading scorers from last season. 

In the frontcourt, redshirt junior forward Devin Tillis and junior center Bent Leuchten return after starting the majority of the team’s games last season. The new guys will look to this group and many more for veteran leadership in the locker room.

“I want leadership from a lot of different guys, because we have so many veterans, so many guys who have something to add,” Turner said. “And we’ve got some really, really strong willed, competitive, thoughtful young guys, so I don’t want to really limit anybody from stuff that goes into winning. My plan right now is to ask for a lot of that from a lot of guys. So I think that there’s [going to] be leadership coming from lots of different places.” 

The 2023-24 season started off with a bang for the Anteaters, defeating Cal State San Marcos in an exhibition contest, 75-57, at the Bren Events Center on Friday, Nov. 3. The official season will start with a road contest at San Jose State on Tuesday, Nov. 7, before returning home for ‘Defend the Bren’ night in the program’s home opener against New Mexico State on Saturday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.

James Huston is a 2023-24 Sports Co-Editor. He can be reached at hustonj@uci.edu.

Jason Garcia Escobar is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at jasonag3@uci.edu.