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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 21 UC Irvine Anteaters

Don’t call it a rebuilding year. The UC Irvine Anteaters are the favorites to repeat as Big West champions.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Kansas State vs UC Irvine Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Record: 31-6 (15-1 Big West), NCAA Second Round
Key Returning Players: Collin Welp (F, So.), John Edgar Jr. (G, Sr.), Evan Leonard (G, Sr.), Tommy Rutherford (F, Sr.), Eyassu Worku (G, Sr.)
Key Losses: Robert Cartwright, Jonathan Galloway, Elston Jones, Max Hazzard (transferred to Arizona)
Key Newcomers: Jeron Artest (G, Fr.), Emmanuel Tshimanga (C, Fr.)

Believe it or not, California’s best college basketball team resided in Irvine last year.

Boasting a program-best 31-6 record, a near-perfect record in Big West play and one of the nation’s best defenses, the UC Irvine Anteaters rarely struggled last year. A whopping 10 different players led the Anteaters in scoring throughout the season, four players won all-Big West honors and UCI won nine of their last 10 Big West games (including in the conference tournament) by double-digits.

Defensively, the Anteaters were one of the best in the nation. The Anteaters held teams under 50 eFG% in 29 games, had the nation’s best two-point defense (opponents shot 40.7%, per KenPom) and were 21st in points allowed (63.1).

Yet this team had higher aspirations. In its second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, the 13-seeded Anteaters used a second-half rally to upset — if one could even call it that — the 4-seed Kansas State Wildcats for the first tournament win in program history.

However, UCI’s feel-good story got turned on its head 48 hours later, as the Anteaters were eliminated by the Oregon Ducks in a game that could only be described as: “frustrating.”

Max Hazzard struggled in his last game in a UC Irvine uniform; the now-Arizona Wildcat only scored seven points on 1-8 three-point shooting against future Pac-12 competition. Head coach Russell Turner called an Oregon player a sexist, homophobic slur, sparking an introspective offseason described excellently in Cyd Zeigler’s longform article for Outsports.

Now with Turner signing a six-year contract extension this summer, the Anteaters should continue their stranglehold on the Big West — even while losing three of their top five scorers from last year. If recent history is an indicator of how rebuilds generally go in Irvine, then expect more of the same from the Anteaters this season. They aren’t going anywhere.

Key Non-Conference Games

UC Irvine is scheduled to play not one, but two quasi-multi-team events. Unsurprisingly, they’re in good positions to win both of them.

First, they’ll square off against Detroit Mercy in the MGM Main Event’s Middleweight Bracket, with a game against Louisiana-Lafayette on the line. Then they’ll play in the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational against a Kent State team that could be the darkhorse to win the MAC. Aside from both MTEs — which feature likely conference contenders in the aforementioned two teams, plus the North Carolina A&T Aggies (Sun Bowl Invitational) — UC Irvine has four postseason teams scheduled and six teams who won 18 or more games last year.

To make things more difficult, UC Irvine won’t play a Division 1 school at home until Nov. 30; by then, the Anteaters will have eight games under their belt.

Nov. 9 at Pepperdine
Nov. 15 at Boise State
Nov. 18 at Colorado
Nov. 21 at TCU
Jan. 4 at Harvard

Three Things to Watch

Should this be a rebuilding season?

In a vacuum, a team losing four seniors, three of its top five scorers and its leading scorer bail to become a grad transfer sounds bleak. Yet with UCI’s balanced, defense-first, bench-reliant approach, the team is prepared for replacing so much lost production.

This season, UCI will suit up seven freshmen. The last time the Anteaters suited up seven freshmen? Look all the way back to the 2016-17 season, in which UCI won the Big West’s regular-season title, finished 21-15 and was a Chima Moneke highlight-reel away from winning the conference’s lone NCAA Tournament bid. Coincidentally, this year’s current seniors were those seven freshmen on the ‘16-17 team; Eyassu Worku was the team’s fourth-highest scorer at 7.2 PPG and Tommy Rutherford was the Anteaters’ second-best rebounder that year despite playing in reserve roles.

Yes, all recruiting classes are different. Yes, the 2019-20 team doesn’t have consistent senior scorers like that 2016-17 team had in Luke Nelson and Jaron Martin. But reloading hasn’t been an issue for Turner’s teams. Even when they hit a bump in the road like they did by going 18-17 in 2018, this year’s team looks closer to the 2017 team than the 2018 team — and even that 18-17 team made the Big West title game.

TL;DR The Anteaters will be fine. Even when they “rebuild,” recent history shows they’re consistently in the mix of the Big West title.

Specifically, who will step up to replace three of last year’s top five scorers?

The cupboard is far from bare in Irvine.

Losing leading scorer Max Hazzard (team leading 12.5 PPG in 26.4 minutes per game) will be a difficult task, yet the Anteaters have a handful of guards who can step up this year. UCI’s 2017-18 leading scorer Evan Leonard returns, who was the Anteater’s best three-point shooter at 41.4% last year. Eyassu Worku (7.0 PPG, 2.6 APG) should take most of the reps at point guard to replace Robert Cartwright. And sophomore Collin Welp (8.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG) — who connected on a team-high 55.6 FG% in conference play amongst returners — looks to build on an impressive freshman campaign.

Newcomer-wise, the Anteaters don’t have any transfers this year. Instead they’ll rely on the aforementioned freshman class led by Jeron Artest — son of the artist formerly known as Ron Artest — who reclassified to the 2019 class after receiving offers from the likes of Butler, Stanford, Saint Louis and San Diego State, amongst others.

Can anyone fill Jonathan Galloway’s shoes on defense?

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: Galloway, a three-time Big West Defensive Player of the Year, was one of the best big men to come out of Turner’s program. While his stats didn’t necessarily show it, Galloway was an absolute terror around the rim, so replacing him will be a tall task — even for the bevy of returning big men on the Anteaters’ roster.

Crafty senior Tommy Rutherford appears to be the short-term solution at the five spot, yet 6’11 freshman Emmanuel Tshimanga could be the heir apparent long term. The latter was a prolific rebounder in the prep circuits as a junior and earned interest from schools like Dayton, Wright State, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Interpret this how you choose, but Tshimanga’s coach at Bella Vista Prep (AZ) also coached number one-overall pick Deandre Ayton before he signed at Arizona.

X Factor

Collin Welp

Generally, UC Irvine has had fairly traditional players come through its program: its guards have been short, quick sharpshooters; its big men have been traditional, back-to-the-basket types who are expected to rebound and protect the rim.

But for the first time in several years, UC Irvine has a player who doesn’t really fit the mold.

Standing 6’9 and boasting a 35.5% clip from three, Welp is one of the few bona fide mismatches in the Big West. The sophomore from Seattle, Washington came into form in the final month of the season by averaging 10 PPG (on 60% shooting) and 4.1 RPG in merely 16 minutes per game — all while coming off the bench in every game. He even crashed the all-Big West tournament team by scoring a career-high 23 points in 23 minutes against Cal State Fullerton in the title game.

Getting Welp involved more often on offense this year would work wonders for the Anteaters — especially if he gets the green light to shoot threes more often than he did last year. If not for being in the same conference as a freshman who put up better numbers than Zion Williamson last season, then Welp would be a sure-fire contender for the Big West Player of the Year. But if the way he ended last season is indicative of things to come, then Welp could have a special sophomore season.