UCI (23-11), the Big West Conference regular-season champion, is making its fifth appearance in the NIT after falling to the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Mustangs, 61-58, in the semifinals of the Big West tournament on Friday at Honda Center.
UCI has won twice in the NIT, both first-round triumphs over UCLA in 1986 and San Diego State in 1982. The Anteaters also defeated High Point at home in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament last season. In its last NIT appearance, UCI lost at BYU in the first round in 2002.
SMU (23-9) was ranked as high as No. 18 this season (March 3) and was considered by many to be the team that suffered the biggest snub by not being included in the NCAA Tournament field. Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown guides the Mustangs, who were upset, 68-64, by Houston in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Thursday.
SMU is making its 15th trip to the postseason, its first since 2011. This is the third NIT appearance for the Dallas-based school that plays most of its home games in 7,000-seat Moody Coliseum. The 23 wins are the most in 28 seasons for the Mustangs, who are 15-1 at home this season, 9-1 at Moody Coliseum.
The matchup pits two of the best defensive teams in the nation against one another. UCI ranks No. 4 in the NCAA in field-goal-percentage defense (.375), just ahead of SMU (.377). Since Feb. 1, the Anteaters lead the nation in holding opponents to 33.9% shooting from the field. UCI is 21-0 when holding its foe to 40% shooting or worse and 16-0 when holding the opponent to fewer than 60 points.
The Anteaters, guided by fourth-year head man Russell Turner, the Big West Coach of the Year, has won 10 of its last 12 games. They are led by first-team all-conference senior Chris McNealy, second-team all-conference freshman guard Luke Nelson and junior Will Davis.
Mamadou Ndiaye, UCI's 7-foot-6 freshman center, was the Big West Defensive Player of the Year and has blocked 99 shots, a conference record.
Sophomore guard Alex Young rounds out the starting five for the 'Eaters.
Nelson, also the Big West Freshman of the Year, is averaging 11.7 points and his 71 three-pointers lead the squad.
Davis, named to the Big West All-Tournament team after averaging 17 points and six rebounds in two games last week, is averaging 11.1 points and a team-best 6.3 rebounds per contest.
McNealy is averaging 11.1 points, followed by Young (8.8) and Ndiaye (8.0). Ndiaye is averaging six rebounds.
UCI's 215 blocks this season rank fourth in the nation.
SMU is paced by first-team All-AAC honoree Nic Moore, a 5-9 sophomore guard who is averaging 13.7 points and 4.7 assists per game.
Sophomore Markus Kennedy (12.1 ppg and a team-best 6.9 rpg) is the Mustangs' tallest starter a 6-9.
SMU is one of four No. 1 seeds in the 32-team field. UCI is a No. 8 seed. Wednesday's winner will advance to face either No. 4-seeded San Francisco (21-11) or No. 5-seeded LSU (19-13) in the second round on a date to be determined.