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Bracketology: UCI Might Upset the Other School in Kansas

As the Division I Men’s College Basketball season barrels towards its regular season peak, it’s hard not to look forward to the most important championship tournament: March Madness. Fans and the general public missed out on filling out brackets and watching March’s greatest marathon unfold last season because of the pandemic. However, the NCAA announced in early January 2021 that they plan to hold the tournament in Indiana using a bubble format. Since that announcement, there has been a renewed sense of optimism among fans. With that, college basketball experts and analysts have been predicting which 68 teams will be playing in the tournament and who they will face in the first round in the practice known as bracketology. 

ESPN College Basketball analyst Joe Lunardi’s Jan. 15 “Bracketology” placed the No. 14 seeded UC Irvine Men’s Basketball team to face off the No. 3 seeded University of Kansas Jayhawks in the opening round. 

UCI is no stranger to basketball teams in Kansas. The Anteaters defeated KU’s in-state rival, Kansas State, in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in 2019. It was one of the seminal upsets that season, sending a shockwave across Southern California and the nation.

UCI never got their opportunity to follow up their impressive underdog performance, as the pandemic shut down college sports right before the 2020 Big West Conference began.  

Kansas, on the other hand, was the No. 1 ranked team in the nation heading into their Big 12 conference tournament. At the time, Kansas was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press’ weekly poll for five straight weeks before the season shut down thanks to an impressive 16 game winning streak. 

Both UCI and Kansas were left with something to prove — without a way to prove it. 

About the Teams

UCI has gone through many changes since last season, specifically in their roster. They said goodbye to some of the best and seasoned players in the program’s history — guards Evan Leonard and Eyassu Worku. The Anteaters also lost forward Tommy Rutherford, who was dominant on both ends of the court. That left head coach Russell Turner with the second-youngest roster in all of Division I Men’s Basketball. 

UCI is currently 6-4. They opened the season against Pepperdine University and SDSU, both of which have been some of Southern California’s best teams. They won two exhibition games against Bethesda University and La Sierra University before losing to USC and narrowly to LMU. Since then, however, UCI is on a three-game winning streak including back-to-back wins against UCSB in their first two conference games. The Anteaters currently sit in a great spot atop the Big West. The next stretch will decide how far the Anteaters can go. UCI is slated to make a strong run in the Big West tournament. If they win the conference championship, they will receive an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament as they did back in March 2019.

Kansas has also had to weather an abundant amount of losses since point guard Devon Dotson and center Udoka Azubuike committed to the NBA draft. Dotson’s speed and elite finishing ability crippled defenses. Azubuike was perhaps the most physically dominant big in Kansas history, excluding Wilt Chamberlain. Head coach Bill Self is no stranger to change. However, there has been an extra level of challenge to replace the production that was lost, and to live up to the highest standards in the Big 12.

The Kansas Jayhawks have been the most dominant team in any major Division I conference since Self took over in 2003; they have won at least 16 of the last 18 Big 12 regular season championships. This is by far the most Power Five conferences won in that span. With back to back losses to unranked Oklahoma State and conference favorite No. 2 Baylor University, Kansas looks to compete from a different perspective than years past. However, this isn’t to say that there cannot be room to improve. There are some bright spots that could lead them to be successful in March.

The Players

UCI freshman guard Dawson Baker currently leads the Anteaters with an average of 12.2 points per game. Baker is a shifty ball handler with a nice jumper which enables him to stretch the floor. He’s a sound passer and adds a big boost in the offense in just his first season. 

UCI redshirt junior forward Collin Welp continues to fill up the stats sheet with his post play and stretch shooting. Welp looks to become the leader late in games as he’s grown substantially throughout his career in Irvine. UCI sophomore forward Austin Johnson and redshirt senior center Brad Greene continue to punish the boards and finish at the rim. 

Greene’s size and Johnson’s athleticism guide the Anteaters on the defensive end, which is a core component in Turner’s playstyle. UCI freshman guard DJ Davis has proven to be a productive player for the Anteaters as Turner can’t keep him off of the floor. 

The departure of Dotson and Azubuike left Kansas’s junior guard Ochai Agbaji and senior guard Marcus Garrett to pick up the burden of creating chances to score and finish. Agbaji is a natural scorer and has shown signs of improvement over the course of the season. However, Garrett is more of a defensive-oriented player; he won the 2020 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award. 

It’s been hard for Kansas to find consistent offense as they relied so heavily on Dotson last season. Without a dominant ball-handler, the Jayhawks have expanded junior forward David McCormack’s role, who has started to show promise after struggling in his first two seasons. 

Freshman forward Jalen Wilson looked to be Kansas’s savior with his shooting and size to keep defenses from clogging the paint. He had an electric start to the season but has since struggled in the last few games. 

The Game Plan

Although Kansas is a hefty favorite, the beauty and magic of college basketball is that upsets can and will happen each season. With a coach like Turner, who typically has his teams playing their best basketball late in the season, UCI will be ready to compete no matter the opponent. It’s crucial for UCI to play a powerful team defense and outhustle the Jayhawks. Teams can win games off of effort and energy — the only two things players can control. 

To combat UCI’s play, Kansas must use their athleticism to wear down UCI’s centers and keep Welp from delivering passes to open shooters like Baker and Davis. Garrett’s defense would seem to be a problem for UCI’s guards, so it would be important to get a lot of action moving across the offense. Playing in a bubble with little to no spectators in the arena keeps away the Kansas faithful from influencing the game and essentially takes away any sort of home-court advantage. 

This audience-free arena can help the Anteaters. In this environment, UCI can potentially muster enough offensive energy and defensive presence to pull off the upset. 

If the Anteater’s upset yet another Kansas college, they face No. 6 seeded Colorado University or No. 11 seeded Boise State. UCI played Colorado last season, so there is a level of familiarity with the two teams.

It’s an exciting time for UCI basketball, and this season might just be the perfect opportunity for another run in March. If UCI can go into the Big West tournament playing their best basketball, anything can happen during 2021 March Madness.

Matthew Zeko is a Sports Intern for the 2021 Winter Quarter. He can be reached at mzeko@uci.edu.