SAN JOSE — The nickname is out of a comic strip. The roster is packed with the offspring of NBA stars. We’re talking about UC Irvine, out there in Orange County, not too far from Disneyland, an institution jokingly referred to as the “University of Caucasian Isolation.”
But no one’s laughing who had his or her NCAA tournament bracket ruined Friday by the Anteaters.
Or at Kansas State, which — Zot! — was upset by UCI, 70-64, in a first-round game at SAP Center.
Yes, UCI. Not UCLA, which didn’t even make the tournament. Not USC, which didn’t make it either. But UCI, which now has won 17 straight games. And after the departure of St. Mary’s, Irvine is the only California school still in the tournament.
A 13th seed, UC Irvine fell behind early, and then down the stretch — when it matters most playing wonderful defense, often a zone — held on to defeat the fourth-seeded Wildcats, the team that in the Big 12 beat the perennial power, Kansas.
“Credit to them,” said Bruce Weber, the K-State coach. “They got some toughness.”
Maybe because they’ve got some lineage.
If you are unfamiliar with the players, you should know their fathers or grandfathers. Talk about a legacy.
Max Hazzard, who shared the UCI scoring high of 19 with Evan Leonard, is the grandson of Walt Hazzard, who was a star and then coach at UCLA and a first-round pick of the Lakers; Colin Welp is the son of the German-born Christian Welp, who also played in the NBA.
JC Butler’s dad is Caron Butler, another top NBA player, and Spencer Rivers is the son of former NBA guard and current Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
Asked if coming from such esteemed basketball families was an advantage when a game was on the line, Hazzard said, “I’m not really sure. That’s kind of a hard thing to gauge, but it does do something for us having them here in the stands. And I know my grandfather is looking down on me and the rest of the squad and that means a lot to me.”
Farther north, UC Santa Cruz, which doesn’t have intercollegiate teams, chose Banana Slugs as its nickname. So when a couple of UC Irvine water polo players who enjoyed the animal in the Johnny Hart comic strip “B.C.” suggested an anteater as the mascot, it was a deal. As was the cry of "Zot," which is the sound made by the animal in the comic strip.
That got more than a little attention. The Anteaters, who Sunday will face Oregon in the second round, now will get more.
“We’ve been consistently good in our league,” said UCI coach Russell Turner. “So we’re proud of the success we’ve established, the type of guys we have, the type of program we have.”
Turner, whose previous jobs include a stint as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors, has been at Irvine nine years. And while his record is impressive, he doesn’t sound a bit paranoid when the discussion expands.
“We have visions of potentially growing into something greater,” said Turner. “Every program sort of dreams of that. This is a big step forward tonight. You know, UC Irvine folks, I don’t know, live in the shadow, live like little brothers to UCLA and SC and maybe some others like Cal, Stanford, San Diego State.”
Maybe because until Friday Irvine had never won an NCAA tournament game.
It should be mentioned that Kansas State was without its injured big man, Dean Wade. “I mean, if you’ve watched us, he’s a huge difference,” said Weber, the K-State coach. “But no excuses. We won without him early in the season.”
They didn’t Friday. UC Irvine had the persistence that good teams possess. And a running 3-pointer by Hazzard just before the buzzer at halftime to tie the score, 30-30, seemed to be a jolt for the Anteaters — and to K-State.
“We knew they’d be tough,” said Weber. “They had depth. They played their butts off, and they made big plays when it counted.”
That’s a recipe for success, no matter the school or team. Zot!