16 & Counting?
Over the past decade several southern California college basketball teams have stepped into the spotlight in March—from UCLA to USC to San Diego State. Now, the UC Irvine Anteaters men’s basketball team has the entire southern California spotlight to themselves as the only southern California-based team to make the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Not only has the 13th-seeded Anteaters made the tournament, but they are also in the midst of a 16-game winning streak, making them a trendy pick to beat their first-round opponent, the fourth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats, who made it all the way to the ‘Elite Eight’ national quarterfinals in the 2019 tournament.
We’re on our way🚍 #stillhungry pic.twitter.com/d3FWGgugGV
— UCI M Basketball (@UCImbb) March 20, 2019
BIG Scores in the BIG West
UC Irvine lost only one Big West conference game all year, and currently boast a record of 30-5, so nobody was surprised when they won the conference title game by 28 points, becoming the first Big West team to reach 30 wins since the legendary 1990-91 UNLV Rebels, who finished 34-1.
The Anteaters’ ability to score a large number of points, with over 200 points scored in their last two games, is a major factor for why many insiders and the general public alike are expecting an upset victory by UC Irvine. UC Irvine is a very balanced team, with nine players averaging at least six points per game, led by guard Max Hazzard who averages 12.5 points per game and guard Evan Leonard who averages 11 points per game. Forward Collin Welp is third on the team averaging nine points per game, as he and Hazzard both scored 23 points in the Big West championship game against Cal State Fullerton, the largest margin of victory ever in the history of the conference title game.
About last night😃🐜🍴 #StillHungry pic.twitter.com/ikLBYfZm0s
— UCI M Basketball (@UCImbb) March 17, 2019
Perhaps the single most important factor if the Anteaters are able to advance past Kansas State is the health of Wildcat big man Dean Wade, a skilled forward/center who can score, rebound and pass. However, Wade has been injury prone during the second half of the season, and his status for Friday’s game is questionable. Even if Wade plays, he probably won’t be able to play a full game of 30-plus minutes.
Without Wade veteran Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber, who lost the 2005 national championship game to North Carolina as head coach of Illinois, may have to go to a smaller, faster lineup to offset the ‘large’ size advantage of the deep UC Irvine lineup, from both Anteater starting and bench players.
This presumed advantage is why you should not be shocked if the Anteaters make Southern California proud and sniff out the Wildcats during the first round of March Madness…
See you in San Jose!