The prospect of playing in an arena free of fans is foreign to most people in sports.
Most, but not all.
“I played Division III,” UC Irvine men’s basketball coach Russell Turner said. “We played lots of games with no crowds. First game I played in college, I ran out and up in the bleachers there were three men and a dog. I’m not kidding.”
Turner’s Anteaters are the defending champions of the Big West and the No. 1 seed entering the conference’s tournament, a gathering that will be staged at Honda Center in Anaheim without spectators.
In response to concerns about the coronavirus, league officials decided Tuesday the event would proceed as planned but the building’s 18,336 seats would remain unoccupied.
So, with a coveted NCAA tournament berth awaiting the winner, seven spirited, must-win games will begin Thursday in a place empty enough to echo.
All of which had Turner recalling his debut as a player at Hampden-Sydney College, where he’d eventually be enshrined in the school’s athletic hall of fame.
“There was another team there and some referees,” he said. “I was happy to compete then. I hope that’s the way my team will be now.”
Irvine will open against Long Beach State at 6 p.m., the third of four quarterfinal games.
The Anteaters won the Big West regular-season title by going 13-3, the program’s fifth such championship in seven years.
But to understand how little that recent history matters today consider that one of Irvine’s conference losses this season came to Long Beach State 63-56 in January.
“In a tournament situation, in a 40-minute game, every team in this league can beat us,” Turner said. “We know that. The team we’re playing is the eighth seed and they already beat us, beat us wire-to-wire.”
March in a conference like the Big West is the definition of madness, three days of do-or-die deciding everything following two months of pool play that determined nothing but seeding.
Only one team playing in Anaheim will advance to the NCAA tournament, one of the few guarantees at a time when college basketball is famous for producing the unexpected.
“This won’t be easy,” Anteaters senior guard Evan Leonard said. “Any team can get hot in this tournament and pull off three wins in a row. We know each team is coming after us. We have to win three games, just like everyone else.”
A year ago, Leonard was part of the Irvine team that after claiming the Big West title, won the first NCAA tournament game in program history.
They beat Kansas State in San Jose before falling to Oregon. Now, they’re trying to become the Big West tournament’s first back-to-back champions since UC Santa Barbara in 2010 and ’11.
This Irvine team is built on defense, rebounding and depth. The Anteaters rank 12th nationally in field-goal percentage against, permitting 38.8% accuracy. Only two teams — Houston and Utah State — have a better average rebounding margin.
They have four players scoring in double figures and five at nine points per game or better.
Ten Anteaters average at least 14 minutes and no one plays as many as 30 a game. Their leading scorer, sophomore forward Collin Welp, comes off the bench.
“I think everyone on this team feels important,” senior guard Eyassu Worku said. “Everyone has their job. Our philosophy is, if everyone does their job, we’ll all get the job done.”
Said Welp: “Our total goal is to win a championship. That helps us put aside our personal wants.”
In 2019, Irvine was driven by the reality of losing in the tournament finals in consecutive seasons.
Though that motivation is now gone, the Anteaters are coming off a defeat. They dropped their regular-season finale last week at home to Cal State Northridge on a night when they were honoring their senior class.
So, No. 1 seed and all, even as defending champions, they enter Thursday knowing they’ve achieved nothing yet that really matters.
“We gotta compete and win the tournament, and that’s hard,” Turner said. “That’s also what makes it really special when you can do it. There is no do-over now. That’s why this is such a great sport.”