UC Irvine Proves to be an Endearing Team with Plenty of Promise.

They’re not the most talented team or the most athletic bunch of players. They’re not the quickest team around, nor are they going to dominate the opposing team with their strength.

But one thing is for sure: this year’s Anteaters men’s basketball team may have the biggest heart in the country.

Regarded as one of the youngest teams in Division 1 collegiate basketball, the Anteaters faced adversity all season long, playing the role of perennial underdogs nearly every time they took the court.

Without a single senior on the team, this team could have easily given up, especially after beginning the season 0-6.

Quit? Not this team.

Even with the nightmare start that should have demoralized this young group of guys, the Anteaters continued to battle game in and game out, never backing down from a fight.

Despite being picked to finish last place in the conference by many, Irvine worked to prove the naysayers wrong. Through the blow-out losses and down-to-the-wire victories, we watched this team grow up right before our eyes. On the biggest stage of the season, the Big West Tournament, we watched as the Anteaters rose to the occasion to stun the NCAA world. It wasn’t simply the win that was impressive; it was the way the Anteaters won that was inspiring.

UCI lost both of their games against the Fullerton Titans during the regular season, including an embarrassment at the Bren Events Center, at one point losing by 30 points. When the Anteaters traveled to Fullerton, they allowed the Titans to score 100 points.

With their backs against the wall, under the brightest lights and facing the lowest odds, the Anteaters jumped out to an early lead against the No. 2 Titans in the quarterfinals of the Big West Tournament Friday night. What’s most impressive is that Irvine was able to maintain their composure and secure the lead until the final seconds of the game. It was the first time in the season the team showed this sort of confidence, poise and maturity.

While the Anteaters would fall to the top-ranked Long Beach State in the semi-finals, it certainly was not because of a lack of effort. UCI battled the 49ers tough.

Prior to the season, there was uncertainty looming around the team whether which role players would step up to be the leaders on the team. With the emergence of juniors Daman Starring, Mike Wilder, Adam Folker and Derick Flowers, the Anteaters now have a legitimate group of senior players to build upon on their journey to capture a Big West title and punch a ticket to March Madness.

We can’t forget about the break-out season of sophomore forward, Chris McNealy, who has gained tons of confidence on the court and has become quite a weapon for the Anteaters offensively and defensively. Include the maturity of players like Will Davis II, Travis Souza, Mike Best and Colin Woods and the return of guard Aaron Wright and you begin to see a light appearing at the end of a tunnel for a UC Irvine basketball program that has never won a Big West Tournament nor reached the NCAA tournament.

With many teams in the conference like Santa Barbara and Long Beach State losing key players on their teams next year, it’s going to be exciting to see UC Irvine take advantage of this season’s highs and lows and possibly sneak away with the conference title in 2013. I wouldn’t bet against it — not against this team.