It's been a long road to UC Irvine's NCAA tournament debut

UC Irvine has traveled a long road in its trek to the NCAA tournament for the first time

UC Irvine basketball, if only by hook, crook, accident or clerical error, should have made the NCAA tournament before now.

The Anteaters boast a colorful past and have provided many thrills since upgrading to Division 1-A nearly 40 years ago.

You’d think, in one of those years, the Anteaters would catch a lucky break or bounce.

How did Cal Poly, with a losing record, get to dance first?

In the early 1980s,  Irvine had one of the nation’s five best players in Kevin Magee, a bonafide beast and first-team All-American.

Bill Mulligan, the Anteaters’ coach at the time, used to say the team bus was allowed to leave so long as Magee was aboard—meaning he didn’t really need any other players.

Magee scored 46 points against Loyola Marymount, still a school record.

He led Irvine to a 23-7 record in 1981-82, but the Anteaters lost a one-point game to Cal State Fullerton in the conference semifinals. Irvine settled for the National Invitation Tournament.

Irvine could never get the timing right, fielding some of its best teams before the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

The old Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. was an underrated, competitive hotbed that included great University of Nevada Las Vegas teams coached by Jerry Tarkanian. Fullerton, Long Beach, Utah State and Fresno State also created obstacles.

Fresno was coached by Boyd Grant, who favored a slow-down game Mulligan hated so much he called it “vomit ball.”

Irvine’s 1983-84 squad featured three future NBA players in Tod Murphy, Ben McDonald and Bob Thornton. The Anteaters finished 19-10, 14-4 in conference play, but “vomit ball” won the tournament and the automatic NCAA bid.

The shocking part: Irvine wasn’t even invited to the NIT.

“This was my most satisfying season,” Mulligan said at the time. “Until the end.”

The 1985-86 squad went 17-13 and defeated Tarkanian's UNLV twice, but still fell short of the NCAA.

The Anteaters advanced to the NIT, shocking UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in the first-round.

Irvine of 1987-88, led by the guard-play of current Oklahoma City Coach Scott Brooks, lost the conference title game to Utah State.

Irvine was a sub-par 10-20 in 1994 but won three Big West tournament games to reach the finals, one win short of the automatic NCAA bid. Alas, the Anteaters lost to New Mexico State.

Surely, 2000-01 should have been Irvine's year. The Anteaters won 25 games under Coach Pat Douglass but lost in the conference semis to Pacific.

Twenty-win seasons in 2002 and 2003 led only to two more losses in the Big West semifinals. 

Irvine reached the league finals in 2007-08, but ceded the NCAA bid to Fullerton, and also lost the 2013 championship game to Pacific.

Last year, Irvine won the regular season Big West title but flamed out in the tournament.

Someday, you figured, the Anteaters' time would come.

Boy, though, did it take time.

Follow Chris Dufresne on Twitter @DufresneLATimes

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