When you consider schools across the land with basketball teams, a handful come to mind. Kentucky, home of the Wildcats. Kansas, home of the Jayhawks. Duke. Georgetown. Temple. And there are others less well-known--like Gonzaga--that sometimes flash and flop in the pan, but offer exciting moments.
But then, this year at least, there is UC Irvine, home of, well, UC Irvine--a suburban campus best known for the sciences, and for not being home to a hoops program to be proud of.
This year things have changed. For the first time in years, and some say decades, there is a basketball team to speak of--a good one, not a fluke team--that could find its way into the national spotlight if things go right for a little while longer.
Who said engineers can't jump?
"I didn't come here for the athletics--I mean, who does?--but I am really excited for this school," said David Bancroft, 31, a graduate student studying business. "It is like the final element to make this school into something more than just math and science. They really are good. They are a great team."
Nobody expected it. Not even the coach. Pat Douglass, coach of UC Irvine's Anteaters, said he thought his team would "be better than last year," never that they would be 16-2 in February and have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament in March. Even now he doesn't want to say it aloud.
"I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. But I think we have a solid nucleus of young players that is going to keep the program really good for the next three or four years. It's really exciting to have home field advantage."
Home field advantage: Unfamiliar words to the folks at UC Irvine. On Wednesday night, 5,231 people (a standing-room-only crowd) watched the game against Utah State. Douglass said he thought crowd noise played a significant role in the 56-51 victory, ending Utah State's 26-game winning streak against Big West conference opponents.
By all accounts, the game was meaningful because it started students talking, allowing them at last to fantasize a little about their Anteaters. The hard-fought game not only gave their team some heart, but, perhaps, also the school.
Hus Taj, a 26-year-old business graduate student, said the good team gives a socially unfocused school something to rally around.
"Usually, if you are in engineering, you stay at the engineering part of the school. Nobody mixes. This is a separated school. But when you have a team do well, it is a reason to [mix] it up."
Alap Shah, 20, wore his Anteaters T-shirt to school Thursday and said he was blissfully thankful that he had a team to root for before he graduates.
"It's my senior year and I've never seen the team better than a sub-.500. I look at them as a real Cinderella this year. They have a lot of heart. I've gone to all the home games this year. Before that . . . well, I've always followed UCLA."
To be sure, many students figured they'd never see their team be good enough to contend. Gary Ro, 21, an economics major, said he can't wait for the day when he tells his friends how well the Anteaters are doing--and they believe him.
"I call my friends now, and all I hear is 'What?' and they don't know what I'm even talking about. Right now, you can see that excitement spreading around the campus. [Before Wednesday's game] there were banners and signs."
Ro said he just hopes enough people on campus realize the Anteaters are good; if that happens, maybe they'll "pay attention to us on Fox Sports."
Nine games remain this season. Then comes the Big West Conference tournament. If the Anteaters win that, they will probably make the NCAA tournament in March. Then, said Nguyen Lu, 21, a computer science major, "it's wide open. Anything can happen."
As many around campus see things, it already has.
* Tickets to UC Irvine home basketball games in the Bren Center range from $6 to $10. The box office can be reached by calling (949) 824-5000. The Anteaters, who play at Long Beach State on Saturday night, then travel to Utah State on Thursday and Boise State on Feb. 10 before returning home on Feb. 15, when they play Pacific in a 5:30 p.m. game.