SAN JOSE, Calif. — The last remaining college basketball team from California resides in Irvine.
UC Irvine defeated Kansas State 70-64 for the first NCAA Tournament victory in school history Friday to reach the second round of the South Regional in a year when all four Pac-12 schools from their state were left out of the field. St. Mary’s was the only other school from California to reach the tournament before losing to Villanova in the first round.
“UC Irvine lives in the shadow, like little brothers to UCLA and USC and maybe some others like Cal, Stanford and San Diego State,” ninth-year UCI coach Russell Turner said. “Well, little brother has been in the weight room getting ready for a chance like this.”
The 13th-seeded Anteaters (31-5) will put the nation’s longest winning streak of 17 straight games up against 12th-seeded Oregon (24-12) Sunday night at 6:40 p.m. at SAP Center.
“We were watching CBS and the Internet last night and everyone has us losing to Oregon, so we definitely take that personally,” UC Irvine junior guard Max Hazzard said Saturday. “It still doesn’t feel like we get the respect we deserve. Playing against high-major teams, I feel like all of us are more motivated. I feel like a bunch of us should be high-major players.”
Hazzard, the grandson of UCLA great Walt Hazzard who is averaging 12.7 points per game, was not recruited by UCLA out of Loyola High School in Los Angeles. His brother, Jacob, played at Arizona.
“I felt like I was under-recruited and never got the attention I deserved,” Hazzard said. “I had to work my way up here too.”
Spencer Rivers, whose dad Doc coaches the Los Angeles Clippers, also didn’t get a call from the local Pac-12 schools. Freshman Collin Welp, whose dad Christian was the Pac-12 player of the year for Washington in 1986, picked UC Irvine over Montana and Seattle University.
“We’ve got a collection of guys with underdog mentalities and often that is a powerful force,” Turner said. “Some of the best players I’ve been around in this game have used the times when they are overlooked as fuel.”
Add junior guard Evan Leonard, who scores 11.3 points per game, to that list.
“I’m glad to be where I’m at having the success we believed we could have,” he said. “We know we don’t come from a conference like the Pac-12 or Big 12, but those are some of the teams we beat this year. If we can come out with a win on Sunday, we will get the respect we deserve.”
One Anteater who did get a Pac-12 offer is senior guard Robert Cartwright, who played three seasons at Stanford before arriving at Irvine as a graduate transfer.
“It’s been a dream come true, no other way to describe it,” Cartwright said. “I couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
UC Irvine went 15-1 to win the Big West by five games, but still needed to claim the tournament title to earn the second NCAA berth in school history.
“During our conference season, we were the overwhelming favorites, but we maintained an edgy attitude,” Turner said.
UC Irvine was the only No. 13 seed to reach the second round.
“However the media wants to portray us, we’re a 31-5 team that played against high-level competition all year,” Cartwright said. “We look at ourselves as a high level team that can compete with anybody.”