Two years ago, UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan finished a 19-10 season and waited for a phone call that never came. The National Invitation Tournament didn't have Mulligan's Anteaters on its guest list.
But when the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams last season, there was suddenly more room in the NIT for the UC Irvines of the world. And on Sunday, the bitter disappointment Mulligan felt at being excluded in 1984 was replaced by the elation of news that UC Irvine had accepted an invitation to enter the 32-team NIT field this season.
Word of UCI's opponent did little to discourage Mulligan's excitement. UCI will open the tournament Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion against UCLA, the defending NIT champion and a team Mulligan repeatedly has said he would like to play in the regular season--if given the chance.
UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard had wavered on the prospect of UCLA accepting an NIT bid after finishing with a 9-9 record in Pacific 10 play, 15-13 overall. He had hoped that holding off the decision would give the Bruins some added incentive in Saturday's regular season finale at Oregon. The Bruins lost that game, 80-65, but Hazzard said his team would play in the tournament, anyway, after talking with his players and with UCLA Athletic Director Pete Dalis.
"The main reason we're in is that we're the defending champions, and we'd like a young team to get some tournament experience," Hazzard said Sunday.
"There were no mixed emotions at all. When we were offered a bid, we were ready to accept."
Loyola Marymount, which finished second to Pepperdine in the West Coast Athletic Conference, also received an invitation. The Lions (18-10) will open the tournament Thursday against Cal (19-9) at Berkeley.
UCI Athletic Director John Caine was contacted by Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Commissioner Lew Cryer late Sunday afternoon. Cryer, who also serves as the chairman of the West Coast advisory board to the NIT selection committee, told Caine that UCI had been selected. Caine confirmed that with an East Coast NIT official, then called Mulligan Sunday to give him the word.
This will mark UCI's first appearence in a post-season tournament since 1982, when two-time All-American Kevin Magee led the Anteaters to a 22-6 record and a spot in the NIT. The Anteaters beat San Diego State, 70-69, in the opening round, then lost to Oklahoma, 80-77.
Mulligan felt certain that his '83-'84 team--one which he calls the best he's had in his six seasons at Irvine--would receive an NIT bid.
"That's what killed me two years ago," he said. "You work so hard and you think you've done a good job, and then you finish the season and go nowhere."
It was that rejection, coupled with the Anteaters' unspectacular, 16-12 record, that left Mulligan leery of his team's chances of being invited this time around. Two victories over nationally ranked Nevada Las Vegas were apparently enough to convince the NIT committee to extend Irvine an invitation.
Said Caine: "I'm almost sure the reason we became such a terribly strong candidate was the fact that we beat UNLV twice. (The committee) respects who you play, and how well you play against them."
The Anteaters were 3-1 against teams that received bids to the NCAA Tournament. They beat Nebraska, 87-80, and lost to Pepperdine, the only California team to reach the NCAA Tournament, 81-72. They became the first PCAA team to beat UNLV on its home court with a 99-92 win over the Rebels on Feb. 15, then beat them 12 days later at Crawford Hall, 95-88.
The victories over UNLV enabled UCI to catch and pass New Mexico State for second place in the PCAA standings. In selections made by conference coaches last Thursday, Mulligan was named the PCAA's coach of the year and senior forward Tod Murphy was a first-team, all-conference selection.
Besides the chance for some much-needed exposure, Mulligan said the game against UCLA gives the Anteaters an opportunity to redeem themselves for a 66-58 loss to Cal State Fullerton in the first round of the PCAA Tournament last Thursday.
"We're just so happy that we have a chance to play again," he said. "After the Fullerton stuff, we need to play somebody else."
Hazzard coached at Chapman College, a Division II school in Orange, before being named the UCLA coach in 1984. While at Chapman, Hazzard became familiar with Mulligan and the UCI program.
"I know Mulligan," he said. "I know his teams are well coached. This will be a very difficult game for us, even though we're at home."
The game represents a chance for UCI to represent the PCAA in a head-to-head confrontation with a Pac-10 team. The PCAA lost a measure of West Coast respect when UCLA beat Fresno State, 53-43, in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
"We're getting a chance to play a Pac-10 team, and that's what we want to do," Mulligan said. "We're having trouble scheduling those teams now."
Mulligan said he doesn't expect the Pauley Pavilion tradition to intimidate his players, who play their home games in Crawford Hall, an on-campus gym with a capacity of 1,459.
"I don't think it should," he said. "They've been to Vegas. They've been to Fresno (Selland Arena). They've been to Nebraska. We're still playing them, not the banners."