Antourage Insider: Big West Tournament Time

After watching Cal State Fullerton go 2-0 this week and losing to UC Riverside on Saturday, UC Irvine wound up as the eighth seed going into the Big West Tournament this weekend. If things had gone their way, UCI could have placed as high as fifth; instead, they will take on No. 1 seed Long Beach State at noon on Thursday at the Honda Center.

This three-day affair is the absolute apex of the season — it decides who will be moving on to the NCAA Tournament. In years past, the top four seeds have received byes in the earlier rounds, making the five through eight seeds win four games in four days to make the NCAA Tournament. This basically impossible task is no more, as this year’s tournament features no byes. Everyone is on a level playing field. Let’s take a look at the match-ups.

No. 8 UC Irvine Anteaters (13-18, 6-10) vs. No. 1 Long Beach State 49ers (20-10, 14-2). Luckily for the ’Eaters, UCI is one of only two Big West teams to have defeated Long Beach State this year. In the first match between the two teams this season, at Long Beach, UCI was up 46-38 at the half. However, that game saw Casper Ware explode in the second half and carry the 49ers to an eventual eight-point victory.

UCI’s win occurred in late January on Homecoming night in what was arguably the highlight of the season for men’s basketball. In order to recapture that success, UCI will once again have to limit Ware’s passing abilities. They will need monster games from Eric Wise (10-14 from the field, 21 points last time) and Darren Moore (21 points last time) and one more player have a stellar effort. Last time, it was Mike Wilder who shot 4-6 from 3-point land, recording a double-double with 24 points and 13 rebounds. Nearly everything must go right for UCI to win, but it has happened before and can happen again.

Make no mistake, it will not be easy. Everyone’s intensity will be up for the tourney, and Long Beach finished their season with nine straight wins after their loss in Irvine.

No. 4 Pacific Tigers (16-14, 8-8) vs. No. 5 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (15-13, 8-8). In a match-up of two teams that were supposed to finish in the top three, I like Pacific to take this one because they swept the season series against UCSB. Both teams, however, are coming off poor ends to their season, so nothing is for certain. Pacific lost their last three games of the season, while UCSB lost three of their last four.

Neither team is likely to play UCI, for if the Anteaters were to advance, they would play the highest remaining seed in the tournament.

No. 2 Cal Poly Mustangs (15-14, 10-6) vs. No. 7 UC Riverside Highlanders (11-18, 6-10). Despite a strong finish to UCR’s season, my money’s (figuratively, of course) on Cal Poly to take this one. The Mustangs swept the season series against UCR, including a 56-40 stomping up in San Luis Obispo.

No. 3 Cal State Northridge Matadors (13-17, 9-7) vs. No. 6 Cal State Fullerton Titans (11-19, 7-9). Northridge swept the season series against Fullerton, so common sense would have the Matadors eliminating the Titans in the tourney. However, the Titans did deliver when they had to, beating Pacific and UC Davis to end the season, catapulting them into the No. 6 spot.

I know I’ve said this numerous times this season, but truly anything can happen in the Big West. UCI has beaten everyone in the conference except CSUN and UCR, and they had opportunities to beat those two teams as well. This tournament will say a lot about just how badly the players want it. It could also be wildly influenced by a couple of lucky bounces here and there.

As a fan, it doesn’t get any better than this. Having both team’s fans and both bands in support makes for an eclectic atmosphere that represents the best of what college basketball has to offer. To make things even better, the Honda Center is a legitimate venue, and an exciting upgrade from the Anaheim Convention Center, which was the home of the tournament in years’ past.

Don’t let finals or the very reasonable $10 price tag scare you away. You only get so many chances to experience the tournament as a student. So go out and support your ’Eaters. It’s now or never.