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Big West Tournament primer: It’s UC Irvine’s to lose

The Anteaters look poised to make their second NCAA Tournament in three years behind Luke Nelson.

NCAA Basketball: Long Beach State at UC Irvine Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Oh wait, the West Coast has basketball besides Gonzaga? Yes, in fact it does. As you recover from your WCC withdrawals, take a second to look at the programs making waves in the Big West Conference.

UC Irvine made a splash at the end of the regular season, overtaking UC Davis for first place after a 79-49 thrashing. The No. 1 seeded Anteaters are clearly the team to beat in the Big West tournament and are looking to earn their second tourney title in the past three years. However, they won’t be without competition. UC Davis had maybe its strongest year ever, finishing second, and Hawaii is a fiery team that as we know can create quite the splash if they make the tourney.

Tournament Format:

All games will be played at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA, and after the first round, teams will be re-seeded so that the highest-ranked team will face the lowest-ranked team.

March 9

(2) UC Davis vs (7) Cal Poly, Fox Sports West
(3) Cal State Fullerton vs (6) Cal State University, Northridge, Fox Sports West
(1) UC Irvine vs (8) UC Riverside, Prime Ticket
(4) Long Beach State vs (5) Hawaii, Prime Ticket

March 10

Semifinals on ESPNU

March 11

Finals on ESPN2

Tournament Bracket

@UCImbb

3 Things to Watch

Luke Nelson

The UC Irvine senior guard recently won Big West POY and really, it should not have been close. He’s averaged 17.2 points per game and went off for 29 points, including seven threes, against UC Davis. The Anteaters’ success is tied to him as he is one of the few players with NCAA Tournament experience and he also holds the highest three-point percentage on the team (44.8%), which will come in handy if the team wants to continue playing this March.

International Flavor

UC Irvine is particularly well known for developing its international players. This year, Nelson tops the list, but the Anteaters had 7’6 Sengalese big man Mamadou N’Diaye and now have 7’2 Greek center Ioannis Dimakopoulos. He may not be the Greek Freak, but he has college experience, three double-doubles this year, and an equally challenging last name. Being a senior as well, he will be key to UC Irvine’s success. However, UC Davis may have them beat. Their stud Australian forward Chima Moneke is nearly averaging a double-double, 14.5 points per and 9.1 rebounds per game. He couldn’t muster a bucket against UCI in their last matchup, so look for him to add to his 13 double-doubles this tournament.

Senior seasons

UC Davis has yet to make the NCAA Tournament at the Division I level, but this is its best chance ever. Not only has Moneke been an absolute monster, but his counterpart, Brynton Lemar, is also a senior. Lemar was also held to 10 points and went 0-5 from behind the arc vs. UCI’s strong three-point defense, but over the year, he’s averaged 15.7 points per game and has been the Aggies’ leader. Siler Schneider was also named Big West Sixth Man of the Year and may need to heat up from deep for the Aggies to win it all.

And don’t count Cal State Fullerton out. The Titans finished just two wins shy of first place and have a dynamic guard combo themselves with Tre Coggins (17.5 ppg) and Lionheart Leslie (10.2 ppg). Their strength is using their athleticism to beat teams, while limiting turnovers.

Prediction

UC Irvine over UC Davis