The Anteaters could pull a giant upset against Louisville, thanks to the fact that they actually have a giant.
It's time for March Madness, and you're probably not going to win your bracket pool if you don't pick any upsets. So you have two choices: you could randomly pick Random Directional State University, or you could listen to someone who wasted countless hours of their life watching low-level NCAA basketball this year so you wouldn't have to. Last year we told you about North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin, and if you listened, you reaped the rewards. Here's who we like this year.
UC-Irvine has a little bit of everything we love in a March Madness upset pick: They're a First Time Tourney team, they have a unique star with a genuinely fascinating background in Mamadou N'diaye, they have a dope mascot (the Anteater!) and most importantly, they're matched up with an opponent they could very well beat. In five years under coach Russell Turner, the Anteaters have turned from a program that was terrible for decades into this team that finally broke through to the big dance. Here's everything you need to know about the Anteaters:
How good are they?
The Anteaters weren't spectacular this year -- they're ranked No. 94 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and didn't actually win their conference, the Big West, in the regular season, as UC-Davis went 14-2 in league play. But we're chalking some of that up to the absence of Mamadou N'diaye: A 7'6 center from Senegal, N'diaye missed most of the year with foot injuries.
N'diaye only managed to play 20 minutes in eight games this year, and the Anteaters went 6-2. And one of those losses was to Arizona, which probably shouldn't be held against them. Most importantly, these three games included the Big West Tournament, which the Anteaters won to earn a tourney bid.
What are they good at?
Being tall is a pretty simple thing, but it's pretty important in basketball. Irvine has way more height than any other team from a low-major conference, and it's not just N'diaye: his backup is 7'2 Greek product Ioannis Dimakopalous, and there's also 6'10 forward Mike Best. And the team's leading scorer and rebounder (aka the best player on the team who doesn't have literal gigantism) is Will Davis, who averaged 12.9 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
All that height shows in the Anteaters' statistical profile: teams only shoot 42.3 percent from inside the arc against UC-Irvine, the 16th-lowest figure in college hoops. Shots get blocked, shots get altered, shots miss.
Tell us more about this Mamadou N'diaye guy!
N'diaye -- not related to the former NBA player/current Georgia Tech assistant of the same name, or the three Senegalese soccer players of the same name -- is the tallest player in college hoops, and he'd be the tallest player in the NBA if he were in the league. N'diaye plays a sport filled with enormously tall people, and makes those enormously tall people look short.
It's not all there for N'diaye. He's clumsy, prone to falling over, getting way out of position. He's slow, and can't get up and down the court quickly. He's still relatively new to the game, and played at a small high school and is playing at a small college, so he's never been forced to develop any moves besides scoring over people. His conditioning isn't great, and he can't play heavy minutes. He's a stick figure who doesn't have a ton of core strength, and can get moved off a spot. He'd prefer to just stand in one place rather than move, on both sides of the ball.
But all those flaws don't outweigh the fact that he is 7'6. He blocks shots just by putting his hand up. When he gets the ball on the post, he can hold the ball above his opponents' head and drop it in. I compared his game to an older brother dominating his 8-year-old sibling in over-the-door Nerf basketball, and I'm sticking to that comparison.
Wait, why is a 7'6 Senegalese man playing for UC-Irvine?
N'diaye's story is a wild one, detailed by Fox Sports while he was in high school. He was first spotted in Dakar by Amadou Koundoul, a Senegalese-born assistant who worked at Irvine at the time. When an American basketball coach spots a 7'6 player in a foreign country, that 7'6 player comes to America.
N'diaye's ended up at Stoneridge Prep, which often helps basketball players moving to America -- Turkish former Kentucky recruit/OKC Thunder center Enes Kanter went there. There they realized that N'diaye had a huge tumor on his pituitary gland. This tumor caused his incredible growth, but also could've caused him to lose his sight if not acted upon.
Charitable donations allowed for N'diaye to get the tumor removed. N'diaye ended up at Brethren Christian, another L.A.-area school, and although Georgetown and Pepperdine also offered, he ended up sticking with the school whose assistant initially brought him over and committing to UC-Irvine.
Is Louisville a good matchup?
Louisville is a GREAT matchup. The Anteaters are one of the best teams in college basketball at defending two-pointers. The Cardinals are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in college basketball, hitting just 30.4 percent of their shots, 312th of 351. How is Louisville going to score?
I'm already somewhat skeptical about Lousiville's offense without Chris Jones, the point guard who was kicked off the team after rape accusations. He wasn't a good shooter, but he was the best on the team, and he ran the offense. Now the "point guard" is Terry Rozier, a converted two-guard, and an already bad-shooting team is worse. That could be a problem against a team that owns the inside.
That said, I have no idea how the interior matchup between N'diaye and Montrezl Harrell goes. Harrell is a monstrous athlete capable of overpowering most interior defenders with ease. Does he bang on the stringy N'diaye for a bunch of easy buckets? Or does he get flustered around the rim by N'diaye's long arms, and end up trying to hit jumpers he can't?
UC-Irvine is that nation's only team called the "anteaters." It's not due to some quirky local tradition -- anteaters live in South America -- it's due to a 1965 poll of the student body. (People in California in the 1960s had great ideas.) Anteaters beat out "none of the above" and Peter the UC-Irvine Anteater was born:
Irvine fans chant "ZOT ZOT ZOT ZOT" basically because nobody knows what noise anteaters make and the anteater in the comic strip "B.C." gets the onomatopoeia "zot" for when he uses his super-long tongue to lap up ants. UC Irvine's website features a nice look at Peter's transformation over the years -- what I like about the current mascot is that he's got the "bicep-having, uniform-wearing anthropomorphic animal" thing that 99.9 percent of college use, but also is an anteater with a silly neck and huge proboscis.
As noted, this is the Anteaters' first tourney trip, but it's not for lack of trying: they've been in Division I since 1977. The best player by far in UC-Irvine hoops history is Scott Brooks, who went on to a 10-year NBA career and presently coaches the Thunder. There's currently one UC-Irvine player playing professionally ... and that's Arizona Cardinals tight end Darren Fells. He passed up football at schools like UCLA for hoops at UC-Irvine out of high school but after a five-year professional career in Europe, decided to give the sport another shot -- and had five receptions this year in his debut season with the Cardinals.
Who went there?
Jon Lovitz is an anteater. That's the ticket! Other notables include Aubrey O'Day, the lead singer of Danity Kane from Making the Band, which is one of my favorite awful girl groups, and author Michael Chabon.