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Cinderella Watch: Can UC Irvine Stay Quiet And Steal Wins?

As we enter the home stretch in conference play everybody is going to be looking for this year's Florida Gulf Coast. That's why we've put together "Cinderella Watch" to profile all the mid-major teams you should know before heading into March.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

UC Irvine Anteaters

Big West Conference

Overall Record: 20-10

Conference Record: 11-3

RPI: 110

Key Wins: Washington (80)

Worst Losses: CSU Northridge (271), Hawaii (157)

Average RPI Win: 224

Average RPI Loss: 113

NCAA Tournament History: None

This Seaason

The Anteaters are finishing up only their 7th 20-win season of all time (6th as a Division I school).  Russell Turner has turned this UC Irvine team into a defensive powerhouse, counting on the team's height to force misses and collect rebounds (they rank 28th in the nation with 38.6 RPG).  As a result of their size, the team also leads the conference in blocks per game (6.3, good for 9th in the nation), led by none other than Mamadou Ndiaye who has nearly 50% of those team blocks.

On the other side of the ball, the Anteaters take their time and only score what's needed.  This pass and play motion has led UC Irvine to rank 14th in the nation in assists.  This has led to some huge, low-scoring wins over Long Beach (46-44 and 61-58), Hawaii (60-56 in OT), UC Santa Barbara (71-60) and Cal Poly (55-48).  Don't mistake this lack of scoring for a weak offense; the Anteaters can run up the points as well, as can be seen in their win over Washington (86-72).

Key Player: Luke Nelson

Raise your hand if you thought I would have said Ndiaye!  While Mamadou has the blocks and the rebounds, it is the freshman guard from Worthing, England who's been the top scorer for the team.  Don't let the 12.1 PPG fool you, Nelson has been responsible for some of the team's most clutch performances when needed.

None of these games were more clutch than against UC Davis, when the Anteaters nearly lost on the road against the worst team in the conference.  Nelson, who had four points up to the end of the game, made a key layup under the two-minute mark to seal the win for UC Irvine.

Why They Will Succeed In March

The Anteaters will rely on their strong defense to carry them through the Big West tournament. They do not lose when they keep teams under 70 points.  As for their offense, when Nelson is on, the team follows suit.

Depending on where they will get seeded, this team could square off against a highly defensive team (perhaps Syracuse, Virginia or Wisconsin).  If that happens, the Anteaters should be able to use their size as one of the tallest teams in the nation, to their advantage.

Remember that this is all speculation that is based on one key thing: the Anteaters must win the conference tourney.  Should that happen, UC Irvine might make their first trip to the Big Dance a memorable one.