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Anteaters Need to Make Best of It

March 12, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

UC Irvine will play at Tulsa Wednesday night in the first round of the NIT.

It's not the postseason event all the Anteaters had hoped for, but at least they made the NIT. Santa Clara, which lost in the final of the West Coast Conference tournament, got totally stiffed. It was NOT anything for Santa Clara.

That's the way it is with the mid-majors. It's all or nothing.

So the gathering was small to watch the NCAA tournament draw on the big screen Sunday afternoon at a restaurant across the street from Irvine's campus.

A few alums, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, men's basketball Coach Pat Douglass, the assistant coaches, some friends and family showed up.

No Anteater players came. If they had spoken bravely Friday night about still thinking the NCAA tournament committee would reward them for a 25-4 record, best in school history, or for their Big West regular-season title, deep down inside they knew better.

The NCAA tournament committee rewards the RPI computer ranking. The NCAA tournament committee rewards the 16-14 Georgia team for going 9-7 in the Southeastern Conference. It does not reward the Anteaters for going 15-1 in the Big West.

"I guess I didn't understand how it worked," Douglass said. NCAA committee chairman Mike Tranghese was explaining how Georgia was included. Tranghese was saying how the Bulldogs, under former UCLA Coach Jim Harrick, had played in the highest-rated conference and had played a nonconference schedule ranked among the most difficult in the country. "That should be rewarded," Tranghese said.

Now Douglass knows. He understands how it works.

He drove his kids hard these last two months, stressed to them that they had better not lose any regular-season conference games, told them that if they beat Idaho and Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State and Pacific, if they didn't slip, didn't have one off night, didn't lose focus for even a second, then maybe it wouldn't be absolutely necessary to win the Big West's single, automatic berth in the conference tournament.

And now, Douglass understands that he was wrong. He thinks now that he put so much pressure on the regular season that the Anteaters were too spent, emotionally and physically, to win the tournament.

So Utah State will represent the Big West. And the Anteaters will head off to the NIT.

And for the Anteaters this is fine.

Douglass hasn't spoken to his team since it lost to Pacific in the Big West tournament semifinals Friday night. He wanted them to go home, take a break, rest, study, watch TV, or not, and absolutely to stop thinking about the NCAA tournament.

"For five weeks," Douglass said, "we've been answering questions about the NCAAs. I thought that was the right thing to do. We couldn't have done any more. Next year I'll do things differently."

But before next year comes this week.

And the NIT could be the best stepping stone yet for the emerging Anteater program.

Not to be a pessimist, but there is no reason to think the Anteaters would have performed any differently than all the other Big West NCAA teams since 1993. One and out.

The Anteaters weren't done any favors by the NIT.

Tulsa has grown used to NCAA success. The Golden Hurricane has been to the NCAA tournament five times since 1994 and made it to the Elite Eight last year before losing, 59-55, to North Carolina. Tulsa lost to Hawaii in overtime in the final of the Western Athletic Conference tournament. That's pretty close to another NCAA bid.

So it won't be easy winning at Tulsa for UC Irvine.

It won't be impossible either.

Because Tulsa is used to the NCAA tournament, because it lost in such an emotional way in the WAC final, maybe the Hurricane players won't have their heart in this NIT game.

The Anteaters should want to win this game more than anything they've wanted on a basketball court.

If they are mad about being kicked in the teeth by the NCAA, the Anteaters should go out and kick Tulsa.

Douglass knows his team has an incredible opportunity. "We can learn a lot by this," Douglass said. "Our three freshmen (7-foot center Adam Parada, 6-9 forward Stanislav Zuzak and guard Aras Baskauskas) saw what it took in the Big West tournament. Adam and Stan saw how much stronger they need to be. This is another chance to see how it's done."

Guerrero says sometimes it's harder to win a first-round NIT game on the road than a first-round NCAA game on a neutral court.

So this will just be another opportunity for the Anteaters.

Irvine fans saw how Cal, which lost to Irvine, and UCLA, which lost at Washington, where Irvine won, got into the NCAAs.

Doesn't matter now. Looking back is worthless. Looking ahead is everything. Thinking about playing in the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden isn't a bad goal.

Besides the three freshmen, Irvine returns Big West player of the year Jerry Green and well-seasoned backups J.R. Christ and Albert Miller next season. How they all play at Tulsa will matter very much for next year.

If the Anteaters play hard, with purpose, with the idea that there is something to be gained, then this 25-4 season will have been the best stepping stone possible. If they play as they did Friday against Pacific, as if, as Douglass said, "their tanks were empty," then they were never ready for the NCAAs anyway.


Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address:

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