Introducing Cinderella: UC Irvine rolls to Big West title

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One year after losing to Cal State Fullerton in the championship game of the Big West tournament, UC Irvine avenged the defeat in dominant fashion Saturday night in Anaheim. Max Hazzard and Collin Welp scored 23 points apiece to lead the Anteaters to the 92-64 victory, with UC Irvine shooting nearly 62% from the field and 10-for-14 from beyond the arc.

Russell Turner’s team, which earned the program’s second-ever NCAA tournament bid, was the class of the Big West all season long and the Anteaters backed that up this weekend. After beating UC Riverside in the quarterfinals UC Irvine avenged its lone conference loss, beating Long Beach State by eight to advance to the title game.

The last time UC Irvine gave Louisville all it wanted before losing by two in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. While the 2018-19 version doesn’t have a 7-foot-7 center patrolling the paint, UC Irvine still defends at a high level and is a bit better offensively as well. Whichever team draws the Anteaters better be ready; this is a team that’s more than capable of advancing next week.

CONFERENCE: Big West

COACH: Russell Turner

RECORD: 30-5 (15-1 Big West)

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 81
  • NET: 73

PROJECTED SEED: The Anteaters will most likely be a 13-seed, although with their profile a 12-seed may be possible depending on which teams the selection committee tabs for the final at-large spots.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: 6-foot-10 senior forward Jonathan Galloway (8.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.1 bpg in conference games) was not only a first team All-Big West selection, but the conference’s best defender as well. And three other Anteaters received all-conference honors, with junior guard Max Hazzard (12.2 ppg, 2.5 apg) named second team All-Big West and junior guard Evan Leonard (11.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.3 apg) and junior forward Tommy Rutherford (7.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg) receiving honorable mention nods. And Collin Welp is an effective option off the bench, as he averaged 9.1 points per game in Big West play.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: UC Irvine went 2-3 in Quadrant 1/2 games with the wins coming on the road against Saint Mary’s (Quadrant 1) and Texas A&M (Quadrant 2). Saint Mary’s is one of two automatic qualifiers that the Anteaters picked up wins over, with the other being Big West champion Montana. UC Irvine went 17-1 in Quadrant 4 games, with the lone blemish being an 80-70 home loss to Long Beach State on January 16.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: As noted above this is one of the better defensive teams in the country, as they rank fourth in field goal percentage defense (37.9%), first in two-point percentage defense (40.2%) and 50th in adjusted defensive efficiency (96.5, per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers). Offensively, the Anteaters are averaging 72.3 points per game while shooting 45.5% from the field and 35.3% from three. Those aren’t numbers that jump off the page, but they’ve been good enough for a team that’s won 30 games.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: As noted above four years ago UC Irvine nearly upset Louisville, and that team had four players listed at 6-foot-10 or taller including 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye. Also, the Anteaters have been a fixture in the Big West title game in recent years. UC Irvine has appeared in five of the last seven finals, winning two.