When the casual college basketball fan first heard of UC Irvine, the Anteaters were leading mighty Louisville. It was the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament, the first time Irvine had played in the tournament, and the game was in the final minute.
The Anteaters lost by two points. The casual fan and his bracket breathed a sigh of relief, and the Anteaters retreated to the invisibility of the Big West Conference.
They had another fine season. With two victories in this week’s Big West tournament at Honda Center, the Anteaters (24-8) would set a school record for most victories in a season.
Really, they need four.
Three victories and they repeat as Big West tournament champions and return to the NCAA tournament. Four victories and they get the NCAA upset that can transform their image from lovable underdogs to legitimate players on the national scene.
“I think we’re close,” senior guard Alex Young said. “I think what will solidify us is if we win a tournament game. That’s the next step to getting over that hump and playing with anybody in the country.”
That can be a steep step for a school outside the power conferences, but Gonzaga has taken that step. So has Wichita State.
“Those programs would still be Cinderellas,” Irvine Coach Russell Turner said. “The Cinderella idea has more to do with a perceived level of a conference.”
The perception of the Big West is not very good. Neither is the history.
No Big West team has won an NCAA tournament game, discounting the play-in game, since 2005. That team was Pacific, now in the West Coast Conference. None of the current Big West members has won an NCAA tournament game since 1990.
In five of the last seven years, the Big West representative has been seeded No. 15 or No. 16. That 2005 Pacific team was the only Big West entrant in the last 22 years to be seeded higher than No. 12, and the only one in that time to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.
“We scheduled this year with the idea we might be good enough to get an at-large bid,” Turner said. “Had we won a few more nonconference games, we might have been in that conversation.”
The Anteaters lost by 10 points at St. Mary’s, by 15 at Oregon and by 25 at Kansas. They rank No. 67 in Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), best in the Big West but just ahead of Michigan, the eighth-place team in the Big Ten Conference.
Their best victory this season?
“That’s a good question,” Young said.
Irvine tied Hawaii (24-5, 13-3) for the Big West regular-season title but lost both games to the Rainbow Warriors.
“If we went 16-0 in league, we would still have to prove it again in the conference tournament,” Turner said.
The Anteaters drew the second seed for the Big West tournament and open Thursday against seventh-seeded Cal Poly (10-19, 4-12). Hawaii, the top seed, faces eighth-seeded Cal State Fullerton (10-19, 3-13).
In the other quarterfinals, third-seeded Long Beach State (18-13, 12-4) draws sixth-seeded UC Riverside (14-18, 5-11), and fourth-seeded UC Santa Barbara (17-12, 11-5) faces fifth-seeded UC Davis (11-18, 6-10).
Irvine generally starts all upperclassmen, including 7-foot-6 junior center Mamadou Ndiaye from Senegal and junior guard Luke Nelson from England. The Anteaters’ point guard, Young, is the player that lost the ball with two seconds left against Louisville, with Irvine down by two points.
“I try to forget about it,” Young said. “I don’t really think about it ‘til somebody says the words ‘Louisville’ or ‘NCAA tournament.’ ”
Three more victories and Young and the Anteaters will be happy to hear the words “NCAA tournament.”