Men's Basketball, Men's Sports, Sports

SoCal’s best college basketball team is a historic underdog once again

Southern California’s hungriest team all year, UC Irvine, will be its lone representative in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.

After being named the 13 seed Sunday afternoon, Irvine became the first Big West team in seven years to be the sole Los Angeles/Orange County team in the big tournament.

The Anteaters left no doubt en route to its second March Madness tournament berth in school history. They won 85 percent of their games to achieve an overall record of 30-5 (15-1 Big West), the most wins of any Division I team in California.

Along the way were a pair of impressive road wins over Saint Mary’s, the only other California team to go dancing this year, and Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. To close out the season, Irvine won 16 straight conference games including a 75-67 Black and Blue Rivalry comeback win over Long Beach State in the Big West Tournament semifinal.

Heading into March Madness, the Big West champions find themselves decorated with several all-conference honors. Head coach Russell Turner took home his third Coach of the Year award, first team senior forward Jonathan Galloway won Best Defensive Player honors and second team junior guard Max Hazzard was named Big West Tournament MVP.

With the most to show for their season in all of SoCal college hoops, the Anteaters have begun to draw comparisons to the last team to represent the Big West in this fashion — the 2011-12 Long Beach State team.

Measuring at the same height as Irvine’s 5-foot-10-inches Hazzard is LBSU’s Casper Ware, who scored 33 points against UC Santa Barbara in the Honda Center to earn the 49ers the automatic-bid in 2012.

Heading into their first round March Madness matchup against the No. 5 New Mexico Lobos, the Beach matched the Anteaters’ 15-1 record in the Big West (25-8 overall). The 49ers’ 2012 season was headlined by an east coast thriller over a No. 9-ranked Pittsburgh team that had been on a 58-game winning streak at home against non-conference teams.

That 2011-12 Long Beach State team also had some hardware of its own with Dan Monson bagging Big West Coach of the Year and Casper Ware earning Player of the Year, both for second straight seasons. All five LBSU starters also earned recognition as Ware and Best Defensive Player Larry Anderson were joined on the first team by T.J. Robinson, while Eugene Phelps claimed second-team honors and James Ennis III was an honorable mention.

Ultimately, that LBSU team fell short to the Lobos 75-68 in the round of 64.

“You have the one emotion that 67 other teams in the tournament will have, you just hate to lose,” Monson told the Daily 49er March 2012. “It doesn’t matter if you have seniors, it’s disappointing when you feel your team could go deeper than this [in the tournament].”

It took seven years for a group of guys to match the level of Big West basketball of the Beach back then.

With many bracketologists penciling Irvine as one of the most likely candidates for a first round upset this weekend, the No. 13 Anteaters have a rare opportunity in front of them that was last in the hands of the 49ers.

UC Irvine is set for an 11 a.m. Friday matchup against No. 4 Kansas State in San Jose.

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