The road to success is never an easy one. For Russell Turner and the UC Irvine men’s basketball team, it took five arduous years of falling down, getting up, and falling down again. Three years of Big West tournament runs, three years of heartbreak, three years of coming up short. But through the struggles and failures it was understood that every step was being taken in the right direction; every experience crucial in making the next step. The Anteaters have a new journey ahead of them starting Friday in Seattle. Many believe UCI is just happy to be in this position. They do not know the whole story. The Anteaters are not just happy to be here, they are eager to make a statement.
As the clock wound down the final seconds of the Big West tournament, senior forward Will Davis II hammered down an emphatic windmill jam that ignited the crowd and put an exclamation point on the rim of the program’s first ever NCAA tournament bid in their 38 year history. It was as if, in that moment all the frustration, all the disappointment, all the uncertainty and doubt was seemingly lifted from the backs of his team with one last leap in the air. Davis, who was named the Big West Tournament MVP, was the first player Coach Turner recruited to UC Irvine at the beginning of his coaching tenure with hopes of building an NCAA tournament-worthy program. It is only fitting that Davis would be the one to score the final points of the tournament-clinching game with a windmill dunk to bring everything full circle.
There is no doubt in my mind that this UC Irvine team is the better team than the Louisville team they will face in the first round of the NCAA tournament. While the Anteaters grew closer together over the course of the season due to injuries to players in their starting lineup, Louisville’s season has been scattered, tainted by a number of locker room issues including the dismissal of senior guard, Chris Jones, who caught a case of rape allegations; and the controversy surrounding Montrezl Harrell’s choice to vacate his captain position for reportedly being too hard on his younger team mates.
On Tuesday, Louisville coach Rick Pitino talked to the media about his team and the NCAA tournament where he spent more time talking about Kentucky than he did the Anteaters. He admitted to never seeing UCI play before Saturday’s draw. When asked “how does [Mamadou] change things around the rim?” Pitino mentioned Mamadou’s ability to dunk the ball without jumping rather than his ability to alter shots on defense. Either Pitino is as clueless as he sounds, or he is trying to wear a façade knowing that his team could very well be a one-and-done.
Louisville is statistically the worst three-point shooting team in the tournament connecting on 30.4% of their attempts from beyond the arc. They come into the tournament shooting 25.5% from three in the month of March. The bulk of their points come from sophomore guard Terry Rozier and Mantrezl Harrell. The two combine for 47% of the offense. A stark contrast from the Anteaters who lack any one player that makes up more than 20% of their scoring.
The Anteaters will almost certainly dial up their 2-3 zone and force Louisville to shoot from the perimeter. Louisville will want to get the ball in the paint – 54.4% of UL buckets come from two-pointers. UC Irvine will rely on former Big West Defensive Player of the Year recipients in Mamadou Ndiaye and Will Davis II to alter shots and protect the paint. The Anteaters shouldn’t have a tough time with that task, because paint defense has been their mantra throughout their Big West run of success. UC Irvine clocks in at fifteenth in the league in opponent two point shot percentage, at 42.3%. The Anteater defense can force this percentage down even lower now that they have Mamadou back at full strength. UCI is very deep up front and has a lot of size in the 4 and 5 spots to put up defensive resistance and they will give Louisville a hard time down low. Compounding that with the Cardinals’ woes from the three point line could mean disaster for Rick Pitino’s squad and could be what Irvine needs for an upset.
The bright spot for the Cardinals is their defense. UL holds teams to 29.3% from three, second among NCAA Tournament teams, only behind Kentucky. Irvine will need the trio of Alex Young, Luke Nelson, and Travis Souza to step up and knock down shots to open up the paint for the bigs if they want to pull off the upset.
The outcome of the game will come down to who can make shots. Louisville has had a lot of trouble scoring when taking contested shots this season, but their defense has certainly helped keep them close in games. Irvine has the ability to get hot from beyond the arc and have a huge advantage defending the paint. With the Anteaters peaking at the right time, I expect them to pull off the upset and advance to the next round.