March Madness 2019: UC Irvine is a really dangerous Cinderella

The UC Irvine Anteaters are through to the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32, and that’s less of a surprise than their No. 13 seeding in the South Region would indicate.

Irvine beat No. 4 Kansas State Friday in San Jose, 70-64, by following the same formula that delivered the Anteaters to a 30-5 record and Big West championship: stingy on-ball defense that encourages the opponent to miss a lot of shots.

This is was one of my favorite upset picks before the tournament — in part because of Irvine’s defense, in part because K-State has struggled to shoot well all year, and in part because Irvine had just been really hot over the last few months:

Irvine seems to me like the best upset pick beyond the 12th seeds. The Anteaters haven’t lost since Jan. 16, and while you could fairly point out that they haven’t played anyone of note, I could in turn point out that Kansas State has a lousy offense and doesn’t make a lot of shots. Irvine’s a decent shooting team, and if the Anteaters get hot, it doesn’t take much imagination to see a bad K-State shooting game leading the Wildcats to big problems.

The betting public liked Irvine, too. According to the William Hill sportsbook, 67 percent of total tickets were on the Anteaters, who were around 6.5-point underdogs.

Kansas State was a bad shooting team. The Wildcats entered 231st in Division I in effective field goal percentage, a metric that weighs three-pointers as 50 percent more valuable than twos. Bruce Weber’s team didn’t have a single standout shooter, which left the Wildcats obviously vulnerable against the nation’s best two-point defense by field goal percentage.

Meanwhile, the Anteaters’ defense entered at No. 5 in the same stat.

Sure enough: K-State shot 37.3 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from three.

Irvine’s a Cinderella, technically, but should be considered dangerous enough to make a real run.

The key is the Anteaters’ defense.

How the rest of the West shakes out is unclear. But the region is loaded with teams that don’t shoot the rock that well. Their next opponent will be either No. 5 Wisconsin or No. 12 Oregon, neither of which is better than 126th in DI in eFG%. If they can win that game, they might face Virginia, whose shooting (and various other) problems in March have been documented more meticulously than any other program in the sport’s. Or maybe it’ll face Oklahoma, which sits 175th in eFG%. Whoever it is won’t be an elite shooting team.

Irvine is going to be smaller than the teams it faces the rest of the way, which might make it susceptible to a lot of offensive rebounds. The defense rarely forces turnovers. But it’s great at causing opponents to miss shots, and the teams hanging nearby in the West are not especially good at making them. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise to see Irvine beat a nominally superior K-State, and why it shouldn’t be a surprise if the run isn’t over.

It’s not just the defense. Irvine has a few guys who can really score.

Guard Evan Leonard, who stands 6’1, was the star against K-State, scoring 19 points on just seven shots from the field, thanks to a 9-for-9 showing at the foul line.

Fellow guards Max Hazzard and Robert Cartwright are generally efficient scorers, Hazzard in particular. Both of them shot a lot of bricks against K-State, as they went a combined 9-for-25 from the field for 25 points. Fortunately, all five of Hazzard’s makes (on 14 shots) were triples. But both of them can be better than they were in the first round.

And to go with all of UC Irvine’s strengths, the region seems like a strong fit.

Don’t be at all surprised if this team plays in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.

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