The Big West's automatic bid to this year's NCAA tournament must be considered up for grabs if only for the fact the favored team has never been to the NCAA tournament.
UC Irvine opens tournament play Thursday at Honda Center without a reliable read of the expectations. The Anteaters (22-10, 13-3) won the Big West regular-season title, but the tournament's three-day format somewhat nullifies all that has been achieved.
The top Big West teams don't receive byes, they jump straight into single-elimination frays. "Everyone restarts now from the same point," Irvine Coach Russell Turner said.
Irvine's advantage as the top draw is that it opens with No. 8 UC Riverside (10-20, 5-11).
Irvine earned the No. 1 seeding only once before, in 2001, and didn't win the tournament. The Anteaters made it to the championship game last year but lost to Pacific.
Irvine is the Big West's top defensive team, with opponents shooting a conference low 37.5%. Leading the last line of defense is 7-6 freshman Mamadou Ndiaye, who needs two blocks to break the Big West single-season record of 95 set by Pacific's Michael Olowokandi in 1997-98.
There isn't much separating Irvine from second-seeded UC Santa Barbara (21-8, 12-4), led by Big West player of the year Alan Williams. Santa Barbara and Irvine split two games, each team winning on its home court.
Williams, a junior forward, is averaging 21.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game as Santa Barbara opens the Big West tournament against No. 7 Cal Poly (10-19, 6-10).
"You're not going to stop Alan Williams," Cal Poly Coach Joe Callero said. "He's a double-double machine."
Two Big West archrivals, No. 6 Cal State Fullerton (11-19, 6-10) and No. 3 Long Beach State (14-16, 10-6), also meet in an opener.
How big is the Long Beach-Fullerton rivalry?
First-year Titans Coach Dedrique Taylor said that when he got the job a prominent booster told him "The season didn't matter if we didn't beat Long Beach State. That set the tone from day one."
Fullerton made the season matter by splitting the season series.
Long Beach has dominated the Big West in recent years, drawing the top seeding each of the last three years, but has had an off year by Coach Dan Monson's standards.
"I don't think there's a big fear factor to play us," Monson said.
Long Beach's win-loss record was compromised by yet another brutally tough nonconference schedule that included losses to Arizona, Kansas State (twice), Creighton, Washington, Michigan and Virginia Commonwealth.
Long Beach came along more slowly than Monson wanted, yet did rally to finish the regular season in third place.