The Big West gets a big boost from UC Irvine as a potential sleeper team for this season’s Big Dance.
The reality of the situation is that there are just a handful of teams in the nation that have a legitimate chance to win a national title this season. Every Cinderella meets their match somewhere along the line, but there are always a few sleepers that find a way to go deeper than expected
When it comes to rounding up the possible sleepers for this season’s tournament, the fact that the UC Irvine school mascot is actually an anteater already makes it an interesting team to follow in the Big West Conference. This Mid-Major conference is not comprised of too many household names when the annual NCAA Tournament rolls around, but the conference champion with the automatic bye has been able to make some noise in the past.
UC Irvine Team Overview
The last time the Anteaters earned a spot in the Big Dance for winning the Big West Tournament was in 2015 as a No. 13 seed. They drew the ACC’s No. 4 Louisville Cardinals and almost pulled off the upset in a 57-55 nail biter as 8.5-point underdogs. Head coach Russ Turner has been at the helm since the 2010/2011 season and this was his team’s only trip to the NCAA Tournament during his current tenure. It was also the program’s only appearance going back to its inception in 1977.
What makes this year’s squad one to watch is a deep bench with a number of players that can play a significant role on each end of the court. Turner has his team moving the ball around and picking the best shots with a respectable shooting percentage from both two-point range and beyond the arc. The Anteaters have also been tough on defense in the top third of the nation in points allowed. This is the right combination for pulling off an upset or two down the road if they can successfully navigate their way through the Big West in early March’s conference tournament.
UC Irvine Season Outlook
Going back to earlier this season, UC Irvine did get a fast start out of the gate with seven straight-up victories in its first nine games. One of those victories as a four-point underdog was against the SEC’s Texas A&M Aggies. The Anteaters went on to beat the West Coast Conference’s Saint Mary’s Gaels for the first time since 2002 in an 80-75 victory as seven-point underdogs.
Some of the key players on the roster include junior forward John Edgar Jr., senior guard Robert Cartwright and junior guard Max Hazzard. Each of the three have played a key role on offense scoring points and combined they can provide the kind of leadership that can often times separate a team from the rest of the field in a smaller Mid-Major conference.
Edgar along with freshman forward Collin Welp are probably two of the team’s best pure shooters and Cartwright has the proven ability to get hot shooting the ball from three-point range. Senior Elston Jones is UC Irvine’s best threat under the boards in rebounds and he is another good example of the depth in this roster as well as its veteran leadership.