Bruce Weber says K-State feels like an underdog in NCAA Tournament
The UC Irvine Anteaters play basketball in a mid-major conference and use a funny animal as their mascot.
In that sense, they fit the mold of a traditional No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But they are far from a normal underdog team.
Just ask K-State basketball coach Bruce Weber.
“Everyone just told me we are supposed to lose tomorrow,” Weber said Thursday at SAP Center, “so how can you tell me we are the favorite? No one else thinks so.”
There has been an interesting build up to this game. K-State was favored by 6 1/2 at the beginning of the week, but that number dropped to 4 1/2 when star forward Dean Wade was ruled doubtful for the game because of a foot injury. College basketball experts have labeled UC Irvine as a trendy upset pick.
So much so that the Anteaters, which have won 16 straight games on their way to a 30-5 record, feel like they’re back in the Big West preparing for a game they are supposed to win.
“It’s pretty cool,” UC Irvine guard Max Hazzard said. “With 30 wins we probably aren’t going to sneak up on anybody. It makes sense going off our record and our merits. But we are going up against a pretty tough team. It’s not going to be easy. Just because people pick us doesn’t mean we are going to win. We have to go out there and play a good 40 minutes.”
UC Irvine will try to back up the upset hype by taking advantage of its size against K-State.
It’s unusual for a mid-major team to have a bigger front court than its power-conference opponent in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but that is certainly the case here.
The Anteaters lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense (40.6) against two-pointers and also hit the glass hard, averaging 40.3 rebounds per game.
Behind starting forwards Jonathan Galloway an Tommy Rutherford, UC Irvine is one of the most physically imposing double-digit seeds in March Madness. Weber likes to go small without Wade in the lineup, but he may have no choice but to go big and play Austin Trice or Levi Stockard at times against the Anteaters.
“Defensive rebounding is the key to winning championships and rings,” Rutherford said. “We have been able to win the Big West championship and the Big West tournament. Hopefully we are able to continue to play that way.”
That will be a challenge. K-State defeated UC Irvine handily last season at Bramlage Coliseum and made it to the Elite Eight last season.
But that won’t intimidate the Anteaters. They already feel like they belong with the Wildcats.
“We’re used to being the hunted in our conference,” UC Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “Everybody that we play in our conference wants to beat us. We held up good, we held up well to that pressure throughout the year, and I think we’re going to hold up well to the pressure in this environment, too.”