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NCAA Tournament Profile: Get to know the UC Irvine Anteaters

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The 30-5 Anteaters are a trendy upset pick for a reason.

NCAA Basketball: Big West Conference Championship Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

When UC Irvine appeared underneath Kansas State on the Selection Sunday’s bracket reveal, the college basketball world licked its collective chops at the sight of a surefire upset pick.

Strangely enough, the groupthink was warranted. A flawed Power-5 team from one of the Big 12’s “down” years (if you could even call it that) matched up against one of the deepest, most defensively sound teams in the country that, by the way, hasn’t lost on the road since Dec. 29. Not only that, said Power-5 team would have to play without its best player, while the lowly mid-major sidelined half its starting backcourt for “precautionary measures” in its conference tournament, yet still won every game by an average of 18.3 points.

Still convinced UC Irvine isn’t a good upset pick?

For those who haven’t stayed up to watch Big West basketball this season, here is a brief breakdown on the nation’s trendiest 13-over-4 upset pick.

Season overview

Russell Turner put together an aggressive schedule that ranked ninth in our top 10 mid-major non-conference schedules list. When all was said and done, UC Irvine was the only Big West team to emerge from the non-conference phase of the season unscathed: The Anteaters racked up wins at Texas A&M, at Saint Mary’s, over a resurgent UTSA team on a neutral floor, plus a home win over fellow NCAA Tournament team Montana.

Save for a 80-70 loss to Long Beach State, the Anteaters had one the best conference records in school history, helped make Turner the ninth-winningest coach in Big West history and are currently riding a 16-game winning streak into the tournament. In the end, the Anteaters amassed 9-3 against postseason teams, including a 2-1 record against NCAA Tournament teams.

Even though some of their opponents weren’t as tough as initially anticipated — hello, Texas A&M, Butler, UC Davis, Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara — the Anteaters finished with a 23-2 record against Q3-4 teams. They took care of business when they needed to, then rolled through the conference tournament. For a team that fell short in the last three Big West Championship games, UC Irvine’s 92-64 win over Cal State Fullerton in the 2019 Championship game was an absolute exorcism.

Personnel

If the previous two paragraphs seemed impressive, buckle up.

UC Irvine’s depth sets the Anteaters apart. Few coaches in the country use their benches quite like Russell Turner, who subs in players on seemingly every other play. Nine different players have led the Anteaters in scoring this season. That’s not a typo. UC Irvine has only two players that average double-figures in Max Hazzard (12.5 PPG) and Evan Leonard (11.1 PPG), but eight Anteaters average over five points per game. Calling UCI deep would be an understatement.

Traditionally, the Anteaters have boasted a deep, bruising backcourt; this season is no exception. Three-time Big West Defensive Player of the Year Jonathan Galloway is one of the most underrated defenders in the nation. The 6’10 center is an old-school rim-protector who averages 7.0 PPG (on 62.1 FG%), 7.9 RPG and 1.1 BPG. His numbers might not jump off the page, but he is the most important Anteater on the floor — and this isn’t a slight to his near-double Elston Jones, who is equally effective around the rim. Throw in all-conference Honorable Mention selection Tommy Rutherford (6.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG), and the Anteaters have a well-rounded frontcourt.

Although all but two of the Anteaters’ key players were returners from last season, the newcomers have turned UC Irvine from a solid team to a special team. After Cal State Fullerton’s duo of Khalil Ahmad and Kyle Allman shredded UC Irvine’s backcourt in the 2018 Big West Championship game, UC Irvine’s need for a true point guard became more apparent than ever. Although UC Irvine isn’t one to rely on the transfer market, credit must be given to its coaching staff for finding the one player that fit its needs.

Enter Robert Cartwright, the Stanford sixth-man-turned steady starting point guard who has helped set up Irvine’s myriad of offensive weapons this season. Despite lacking the true scoring prowess as true two-guards Evan Leonard, Max Hazzard and John Edgar Jr., his ability to run the offense helped unlock a new gear for the Anteaters. Label UC Irvine as just a defensive team at your risk.

But of all UC Irvine’s players, redshirt freshman Collin Welp is the only true mismatch on offense. The 6-9 stretch forward is UC Irvine’s third-leading scorer at 8.9 PPG, yet he usually comes off the bench. He shoots 36.1% from three and averages 4.4 rebounds per game, but has caught fire this March. Welp has averaged 13.5 PPG (on shooting 64.2 percent), 4.2 RPG and has made 55.6% of his threes through six games. Save for Lamine Diane’s historic season for Cal State Northridge, Welp would have been the Big West Newcomer of the Year.

Commitment to defense is the commonality between UC Irvine’s diverse cast of characters. The Anteaters aren’t afraid to play man defense for the entire shot clock, wear out opponents and fight aggressively on the glass. Having a deep bench helps immensely: With the luxury of subbing out fresh players so frequently, Russell Turner and co. wear out offenses, protect the paint and force opponents to a nation-lowest 40.6% shooting inside the arc.

Should UC Irvine upset Kansas State, that final statistic will be the culprit. After all, the Wildcats have a sub-average offense. Expect the Anteaters to feast on that.