Will this be the year the team makes it back to the NCAA tournament? The Anteaters have only enjoyed March Madness once, back in 2015 when the team had 7 ft. 6 in. Mamadou Ndiaye on the team. UCI won the Big West Tournament title and were the 13th-seeded team in the East bracket where they put perennial powerhouse and 4th-seeded Louisville on upset alert, before losing 57-55. That was the closest game Louisville had before losing to Michigan State in the Elite Eight round.
While UCI has been a solid team in recent years, winning the regular season standings five times, the Anteaters have won only one Big West Tournament men’s basketball title.
They lost the last two tournaments in the championship game to Cal State Fullerton in 2018 and UC Davis in 2017.
UCI is currently ranked 92nd in the NCAA, and only 64 teams make it to the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But the Big West Tournament champion is one of them.
The Big West Tournament is at the Honda Center in Anaheim for the ninth straight year. The men’s tournament begins on March 14 with four quarterfinal games. The semifinals and championship games for both men and women will take place on March 15 and 16.
Led by head coach Russell Turner, UCI has 20 or more wins in six of the last seven seasons. This team is one of his best, with size, depth and talent, and a great defense. UCI’s opponents are shooting under 40 percent and getting badly out-rebounded most games.
Jonathan Galloway is a two-time Big West Defensive Player of the Year and leads the Anteaters in rebounding. Max Hazzard is a 6-foot guard who shoots and defends well.
“He’s a passionate coach and that’s what I wanted,” Hazzard said about Turner in an OC Register story. “Plus, I could stay local and go to a world-class university.”
He is the grandson of the late, great Walt Hazzard, who was the first pick in the NBA draft by the L.A. Lakers, after starring on John Wooden’s first championship team at UCLA.
Overall, UCI has won 28 national championships in nine different sports. Basketball is not one of them. While it’s not likely UCI will win a NCAA Championship anytime soon, making the tournament, and even winning a game or two would be a tremendous coup for the program.
OC Register reporter Mark Whicker wrote in a story about the team that, “maturity, composure and depth are three major ingredients for NCAA Tournament mischief-making.” The Anteaters have all three attributes.
The NCAA Championship will be close to home this year as the Big West Conference hosts the NCAA Sweet 16 and Elite 8 at the Honda Center on March 28 and 30.
Make the tournament, win a couple of games and the Anteaters would be making history before what we hope will be a raucous crowd in Anaheim rooting for the Orange County underdog. Hey, we can dream.
Check the team out at the Anteaters last home game of the regular season, March 9 against Cal State Northridge at Bren Events Center, and at the Big West Tournament March 14-16.