Former Phoenix High standout Alex Young will make his first start for UC Irvine tonight when the Anteaters take on No. 24 UNLV. - Photo courtesy of Marlin Agoub

Ahead of the Curve

Well before anyone else, Alex Young knew that the University of California Irvine was a good fit for him.

The ink was likely still drying on his Class 4A player of the year certificate when Young committed to the Anteaters during his junior year at Phoenix High.

And even though he helped lead the Pirates back to the state championship game his senior year, Young never once thought about breaking his word to shop himself around to other Division I programs.

What the affable basketball star knew back then is what the rest are catching up to now, and that's the fact that Young and the Anteaters are a perfect combination. Only seven games into his freshman campaign, the 6-foot-1, 176-pound guard leads the nation in assist to turnover ratio at 10.33 (31 assists, three turnovers) and appears to have made a seamless transition from high school to college.

"I felt like this from Day 1 when I committed to Irvine that this was the right decision and I proved myself right when I got down here and became part of the team and began going to school," said Young. "I'm just really enjoying this SoCal life."

Then again, what's not to enjoy? Through nearly 22 minutes of play per game, Young is averaging 7.6 points, 4.4 assists and 3.4 rebounds for a UC Irvine team that opened with a convincing win over Nevada and then pushed UCLA to the limit before losing 80-79 in overtime at Pauley Pavilion.

"He's been excellent," said UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner. "There's not much denying that when you look at just his performance. His assist to turnover ratio has got to be the best in the country, especially for a freshman, I don't know who else could have one better right now."

"As a point guard that's a really solid measure of your offensive performance," added the third-year coach. "He's made our team better, made our team more competitive and made us tougher. I'm happy we got him. I'm not totally surprised because we expected great things from him but his ability to be unaffected in his transition to college basketball has been really great to see."

As a tribute to his performance thus far in games and during practice, Turner said Tuesday that Young will be in line to make his first collegiate start tonight when the Anteaters (3-4) take on 24th-ranked UNLV (3-1) at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. It's the first time in 15 years that the teams have met and the Runnin' Rebels, led by Portland product Mike Moser, own the series lead 31-9.

"That's going to be a big test to see where our heads are mentally because we're suiting up against one of the best teams out there," said Young.

Tonight's game will be the fifth straight road contest for UC Irvine, which has also lost three straight after a promising 3-1 start. The Anteaters first three losses, however, were by a combined seven points, and their most recent loss was a 72-62 setback last Saturday at Pepperdine.

"We've lost our last three games but I feel the closeness we have as a team will get it back together and hopefully we'll start winning some more games," said Young, whose team also has upcoming key dates with Weber State, Fresno State, LSU and USC.

"So far I feel like we've opened a few eyes by beating Nevada and pushing UCLA to its limits," he added. "I feel like the line is starting to be cut off between mid-major and high-major schools. Everybody's just out there playing basketball and trying to get wins, it doesn't matter who you play for."

As someone who started at the varsity level once he stepped on the campus at Phoenix High, being thrown into the rotation right away at UC Irvine was something Young hoped would be the case but certainly didn't take for granted. That first game against Nevada, a 78-64 home victory, is something he won't soon forget.

"I remember the first game back in Phoenix it was kind of similar with the butterflies," he said, "but the butterflies here were the biggest in my life. At the same time, I felt like I've worked so hard to get to this point and belonged here so that helped. After the first few minutes it was just about playing basketball again."

If that wasn't already a big step, his next step of playing on the road at then-No. 13 UCLA was a doozy. He finished with seven points, none bigger than a corner 3-pointer in the final minute to put UC Irvine up 67-65. The Anteaters missed a few chances to seal the win in regulation and, with 10 seconds left, UCLA's Jordan Adams netted two free throws to send it into overtime.

"Stepping on the floor against UCLA in the new Pauley Pavilion with the crowd and students going nuts and hazing you all game, you live for games like that," said Young. "To hit a shot like that ... a million thoughts ran through my head to take a team like UCLA down to the wire. I wish we would've won, of course, but to step on the court like that against UCLA was amazing."

Young has since made it his goal to have many more memorable moments on the court, working hard to get up to speed at the college level and potentially increase his team's chances at victory.

"I'm just continually trying to work on the little things like being able to continue to score like I did in high school," said Young, who is shooting 40 percent from the field (15-for-38) and 80 percent from the foul line (16-for-20). "Now it's not as easy to score as it was in high school but I'm finding other ways to make my game each night, whether it's by passing or playing defense. The biggest thing I think I'm doing a good job of now is creating for my teammates."

Turner couldn't agree more.

"I feel like I can trust his decision making already and for a point guard that's a great quality to have," said the coach, who credits Young's parents, Will and Louise, and Phoenix head coach Glenn Johannes for molding the teenager into someone capable of thriving on and off the court at UC Irvine. "We're going to continue to grow together as a team and find out more and more what we can get from him but he's built some credit up with the coaches with how he's played so far."

If anything, Young said he owes a lot of that credit to an already veteran roster that has allowed him to thrive on campus and on the court. UC Irvine returned all five starters and a total of 10 players from last season, when the Anteaters went 12-20 and tied for sixth in the Big West Conference.

"The teammates here remind me a lot of the guys back at Phoenix," said Young. "It's amazing how well we all click together. To have all 16 guys who are all in for one goal, to win a conference championship and go to the NCAA tournament, is amazing. These guys welcomed me from the first time I was on campus and I can't tell you how much I appreciate that."

While he's seen time mostly at point guard, Young has also played as the off-guard this year. His insertion into the starting lineup will certainly require more of him, but the all-state talent is never more at home than when he's been asked to shoulder the load.

"Having the ball in my hand is something I've always enjoyed doing and always felt is the best role for me," said Young. "I love playing point guard and being able to get guys open looks and create for my teammates, but I'm also a scorer so I have to fit that in at the right times, too."

However that journey goes for Young, Turner and company seem content to be along for the ride.

"I've got real confidence that he can shoulder whatever burdens we can give him," said the coach. "I give my staff a lot of credit for identifying that Alex has all those qualities that you look for. ... He's clearly met and exceeded our expectations to this point and hopefully he continues to grow."

"He's been an outstanding student within our community here and I couldn't be happier with the fit," added Turner, echoing the sentiment Young has held firm to all along.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488,, or

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