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