UC Irvine Anteaters: 30-5, 15-1 in the Big West
Head coach: Russell Turner (9th season)
Players to watch: Max Hazzard (12.5 PPG, 2.2 APG); Evan Leonard (11.1 PPG, 1.4 SPG); Collin Welp (8.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
Season recap: After back-to-back losses in the Big West championship the previous two years, UC Irvine finally broke through to an NCAA tournament bid after a dominating 92-64 victory over Cal State Fullerton. A sizzling 23-point performance off the bench from freshman forward Collin Welp, along with 23 points tacked on by junior guard Max Hazzard, put the game away early.
Before the season even began, the Anteaters went 4-1 in the Asia Pacific University Challenge as the first-ever NCAA Division I school invited. They then started off the season with six straight victories and ended the year on a 16-game winning streak, including three tournament victories, thoroughly outpacing the rest of the Big West Conference. The team is tied for most road wins in the nation with 13 and will be back in the tournament for the first time since 2015, when it lost to Louisville 57-55 in the first round.
UC Irvine boasts a balanced attack, with six players averaging over 20 minutes and a seventh at 19.6—all seven of those players average more than five points per game. Nine players have been the Anteaters’ leading scorer in games this year, from the typically solid Hazzard and Welp to senior guard Robert Cartwright, whose season-high 17-point outburst willed Irvine past Long Beach State in the Big West semifinals.
How they make a run: UC Irvine proves that it belongs in the national tournament through an all-around performance to move into the Round of 32 for the first time in school history.
How they falter: Without a true star to rely on, the Anteaters struggle to create offense against a highly-ranked team and crumble to a quick first-round exit.