Barber: UC Irvine redefines itself with 70-64 win over Kansas State

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SAN JOSE — The lead note in the New York Times’ “California Today” news bulletin on Tuesday ran under the headline: “The Best College Basketball Team in California Probably Isn’t the One You Think.”

America’s newspaper of record was promising a surprise, and delivered one by suggesting that UC Irvine, home of the Anteaters, had the best college men’s basketball team in our glorious state. A little morning clickbait, right? My, my, who is this mystery team? But after Friday’s 70-64 victory over No. 4 seed Kansas State at SAP Center, it’s a simple matter of fact. Quiet little UC Irvine is the gold(en state) standard.

Not Stanford or UCLA. Not USC. Not San Diego State or UC Santa Barbara or Santa Clara. Certainly not Cal. And not St. Mary’s, either. The Moraga school had been California’s best over the past few years. But UC Irvine bumped off the Gaels, on the road, in November. And St. Mary’s was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament Thursday, leaving the Anteaters as California’s last representative.

“It’s pretty cool,” junior guard Max Hazzard said after helping deliver the first March Madness win in school history. “Yeah, it’s definitely exciting, and we’re going to keep trying to carry the torch and put on for Cali, but most importantly put on for the University of Irvine.”

In some ways, this is not your typical underdog story. These Anteaters weren’t all found in cornfields and stocking the higher shelves at Safeway. Some of them have last names that speak of basketball royalty — including Hazzard. His grandfather was Walt Hazzard, John Wooden’s first great player at UCLA and later a Bruins coach himself. Freshman forward Collin Welp is the son of Christian Welp, the Pac-10 Player of the Year while at Washington in 1986. Senior guard Spencer Rivers is the son of Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers. Freshman forward J.C. Butler is the son of two-time NBA All-Star Caron Butler.

Despite the DNA, none of those players entered the crosshairs of the elite programs of the West Coast.

“I think even in those cases, they may have been under-recruited by those types of schools, for whatever reason,” UC Irvine assistant coach Michael Wilder told me. “And we’re happy about that. We’re happy about that.”

Some of the Anteaters might be bluebloods, but they weren’t necessarily blue chippers. Just one player on the squad, guard Robert Cartwright, was ranked in the top 100 in his high school class, according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. Stanford, by contrast, had four such players this year. UCLA had nine.

Yet UC Irvine (30-5) has eight more wins than any other California team in 2018-19.

After the game, head coach Russell Turner, a former Stanford assistant, wasn’t in the mood to play the aw-shucks role.

“We have visions of potentially growing into something greater,” Turner said. “You know, every player dreams of that. Every program sort of dreams of that. This was a big step toward that tonight. You know, UC Irvine folks, I don’t know, live in the shadows, live like little brothers to UCLA and ’SC and maybe some others — Cal, Stanford, San Diego State. Maybe like little brothers. Well, little brother has been in the weight room, getting better, getting ready for a chance like this.

“So I’m really happy for these players to be able to work so hard for something everybody can see, and then accomplish it. But I’m also really excited for the fans of our program who also seem to have endured feeling like little brothers. You know, we need to stick our chests out a little bit right now, I believe.”

When I was at UCLA in the late 18th century, the Bruins hosted UC Irvine a couple times. I would join the student section at Pauley Pavilion in chanting “Redirect! Redirect!” at the Anteaters. It’s an obsolete jeer. In those days, instead of applying to multiple UC campuses, high school seniors would apply to the system as a whole and rank their preferences. Some kids would gain UC acceptance, but wouldn’t get their first choice; they would then be “redirected” to their Plan B or Plan C.

That was UC Irvine’s rep in those days, and today. It’s a fine school, but not as prestigious as UCLA or Cal. Or put it this way: The college admissions scandal that exploded a week or so ago? Those snooty parents weren’t paying $500,000 to get Chad or Chelsea into Irvine. And if that’s true of your average psych major, you can bet it’s true of elite athletes.

But is that written in stone? California college basketball, and the athletic conference that partially overlaps it, the Pac-12, both are mired in an prolonged rut. It has created a vacuum, and teams like the Anteaters are eager to stick their snouts in it.

“We said before the tournament started, we wanted them to validate the success we’ve had, prior to this game,” Wilder said. “So I think a tournament win for us will be obviously more exposure. And I think it shows kids that might be thinking, ‘Oh, the Pac-12 is where I want to be, because it’s big time,’ I think a win like this shows those guys, ‘Hey, we can do the same thing. We can have similar success. We can be on that platform.”

Wilder knows the equation. He played at UC Irvine from 2009 to 2013, joining the program as a walk-on before earning a scholarship. The larger schools never give him a sniff. Wilder used the phrase “a chip on their shoulder” to describe his players at least three times during our conversation. He probably carries that chip, too, though he sounded pretty chill about the whole situation.

Wilder is heavily involved in recruiting for the Anteaters. I asked him how he sells UC Irvine, and this still-under-the-radar program, when he’s sitting in a family’s living room.

“We just want to recruit high-character, high-quality guys that want to work every day,” Wilder said. “We love looking for guys with that chip on their shoulder, or that have something to prove. And we’re a high-academic institution, so we want guys that want to be challenged on the court and in the classroom. Obviously, the location’s great. And we have a staff, and a head coach in Turner, that’s really gonna push you and really gonna get the most out of you, as a player and a person.”

Sounds like UC Irvine basketball has everything — except the reputation.

“Yep,” Wilder said. “And we’re fine with that. We’re fine with that. We’ve got a great group, and we’ll see how far we can go.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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