Under head coach Russell Turner, the Anteaters have gone from a lower-tier Big West team to one who uses size and strong defense to beat you. Knowing full well that UC Irvine would have a hard time competing with Long Beach State and UCSB in recruiting, Turner started reaching out internationally and as a result, has pieced together a team who made school history. With that, let's take a look at the Anteaters and their opponent, the Louisville Cardinals:
A Quick Glance at Kenpom
Louisville ranks 18th
UC Irvine ranks 98th
Yes, that 80-point differential does look devastating: there's a reason why this game is a 4-13 matchup in the tournament. Louisville on paper is the much stronger team: they have played better opponents and have relied on four starters who spread the ball around evenly and take advantage of each scoring opportunity. The Anteaters aren't great on offense; however, they're actually pretty good at defense. Looking at the overall numbers, the Cardinals dominate this matchup in nearly every category...except one.
Does Size Matter?
Finally we come to the fun part: The Anteaters are one of the tallest, if not the absolute tallest, teams in college basketball this season. Let's look past Mamadou Ndiaye for a moment: there's Ioannis Dimakopoulos, the Greek forward who stands at 7'2" as well as John Ryan, the 6'10" senior transfer from Fresno State. Add Will Davis II, the team's top scorer who muscles his way to the basket, to the mix with his 6'8" frame and you'll wonder, "Why does this team do anything but dunk the ball?"
Okay, now we can get to Mamadou: not many teams know what to do with the 7'6," 300-pound giant of a center, including many Big West teams who have now seen him and scouted him for two years. The guy has a near 8 foot wingspan. The downside to being that tall of course is, Ndiaye tends to be very clumsy. With that being said, it still doesn't take much for him to flail around, as a forward is driving for a layup, and whacking the ball like a flyswatter to the fly. If Louisville can't get their inside game going, it might be a long night for them, thanks to the Senegalese Swatter.
What to Expect
Expect Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier to try and come out fast for Louisville and push the limit against Ndiaye. If they're able to break past him and make the easy drives, this game will be over quickly. If Turner's box zone can shut down the Cardinals from within the arc, the game will then shift to the Anteaters advantage. I suppose this would be a good time to bring up Luke Nelson for UC Irvine. The young Englishman needs to have a great game for the Anteaters to have a chance. If he can get hot, this game will come down to the wire.
This game has all the potential makings of a huge upset: an underrated team that had to work hard just to make it in, a possibly over-confident team and fan base and a legendary coach squaring off against a young coach who's starting to develop his legacy. Let's go for the stupid upset pick: UC Irvine 52, Louisville 50.