Last week, the UC Irvine Athletics Department hyped up the contest between the men’s basketball team and Long Beach State as a ‘rivalry game.’ In fact, 1,500 T-shirts were distributed to fans in attendance.
Although their intentions were good, and CSULB is definitely our closest geographic Big West opponent, the Athletics Department made one huge mistake: the real rivalry game is this week against our archnemesis, the Utah State Aggies. And the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Let me first start off by telling you something. I don’t like Utah State. In fact, I hate Utah State. I hate everything about them. When I think about Utah State and their basketball program, all I can think is that they’re the Big West’s evil empire.
Obviously, I borrowed the words, ‘evil empire’ from Larry Lucchino, the Boston Red Sox’s president, when he was referring to their hated rivals, the New York Yankees, and their arrogance and complete disregard for the competition.
It’s not difficult to see how Utah State could be the evil empire here in the Big West.
Each year, Utah State believes it’s their divine right to finish first in the Big West and go to the NCAA tournament.
They view loss as a catastrophe of epic proportions. They walk around with a pompous skip in their step that is just plain annoying. And don’t get me started on their fans.
Nonetheless, they have a reason to act that way. They’ve proven year after year that they can win.
Dating back to the 2000-2001 season, the Aggies amassed a 112-32 record. That’s a .777 winning percentage! Twenty-plus win seasons are the norm.
Everybody in the Big West can thank Utah State (and, oh yeah, you can’t forget about Pacific’s play last year) for putting Big West basketball on the map. We’re not just a baseball conference anymore.
And though I do hate Utah State, and I do believe they’re an evil empire, I give them some credit.
For all the regular season wins we’ve handed the Aggies in the past few years, Utah State has responded.
For all the Jerry Green and Mike Hood last-second heroics, we have no NCAA tournament berths to show for it.
Then why, you may ask, am I stressing the importance of this regular season game?
Because we need a big win against a big team. Sure, beating Cal State Fullerton, CSULB, Santa Clara, Cal Poly and New Mexico State is fine and dandy, but for the psyche of this young Anteater ball club, nothing would mean more than a victory against Utah State.
Two weeks ago, UCI could smell victory against Pacific and Cal State Northridge, last year’s conference tournament finalists who stand first and second in this year’s standings, respectively.
But we came up short in two heartbreaking losses. You can only imagine the shockwaves that would have been sent across the Big West if the Anteaters prevailed that weekend against Pacific.
Our team, if you remember, was picked to finish seventh in the conference this season.
But lamenting about the ‘what ifs’ doesn’t get you any wins. The Anteaters currently do stand in seventh place, but there is nowhere to go but up.
A victory over Utah State would make a statement and prove that this young and inexperienced team can play, and that it is a force to be reckoned with when the second half of league play starts shortly.
That means the team has to step up. Sharpshooter Ross Schraeder suffered a nasal fracture in last week’s game against CSULB, and his status for the upcoming game is uncertain. With our premier perimeter player out, Nic Campbell has to be ready to make the long shot, and Jeff Gloger and Aaron Fitzgerald must continue their recent play and push the ball up court.
Fitzgerald, a junior transfer who has traveled all over the West Coast playing basketball, has brought new life and excitement to the Bren with his up-tempo play and remarkable court vision. He must find the open man but take over the game when he knows he has to.
Of course, Greg Ethington must display inside presence and fight for rebounds against those ever-so-pesky Aggie forwards Nate Harris and Spencer Nelson.
Freshman Darren Fells has surprised many by finding a starting role in the lineup, and although he might not know much about the hatred that exists between UCI and Utah State, he has to help Ethington in the middle for the Anteaters to have any chance.
Besides needing to make a statement, there is one more reason why this game is important.
This is the last year Utah State will play in the Big West Conference. Next season, the Aggies will join the Western Athletic Conference.
When they come to play on Thursday, UCI has one more chance to leave a lasting impression and prove to Utah State that despite all their victories, they could never figure out how to win consistently on the road at the Bren.
In Utah State’s final visit to Irvine, the stakes couldn’t be higher.