Coach Russell Turner was 6 when the UC Irvine men's basketball program entered the Division I ranks. Now, 37 years later, the Anteaters have still yet to qualify for what has commonly been referred to as The Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament that sweeps the nation every March and April.
UCI came up short in its most recent attempt on Friday night, as the Big West Conference regular-season champion and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament was upset in the semifinals, 61-58, by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at Honda Center. The Big West Tournament champion earns an automatic qualifying berth to the NCAA Tournament.
The loss, the second in the conference tournament semifinals in as many tries as the No. 1 seed for the Anteaters, dropped Turners' 23-11 squad into the National Invitation Tournament, for which pairings are expected to be announced Sunday.
It was, in light of the expectations generated by the best UCI team in a dozen seasons, a massive letdown for Anteater Nation, which had been picking out dancing shoes for weeks.
In the grand scheme, however, Friday's loss may be the best thing that could have happened to the program.
With only one player graduating — senior first-team all-conference honoree Chris McNealy — the Anteaters will be primed to defend their Big West crown next season. Returning redshirts and recruits will reconfigure on a roster that could crack the top 10 of the CollegeInsider.com mid-major poll.
With added seasoning and development, particularly with 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye, the four returning starters and four top reserves figure to provide enough talent to make victory expected.
Further, a shot at the NIT for this year's group, which won a game last season in the CollegeInsider.com tournament for the program's first postseason triumph since1986, is an opportunity to continue to build confidence for next season.
The NIT, though operating in the expansive shadow of the NCAA championships, provides UCI a chance to succeed among a field of major also-rans and mid-major standouts. With UCI's lack of pedigree — its marquee nonconference win this season was at Washington, which was eliminated in the first round of the Pac 12 Tournament and is 17-15 — it likely would have been first-round fodder for the national heavyweights that aspire to cry through "One Shining Moment."
A quick scan uncovered 49 of the current 349 Division I men's basketball programs eligible for the NCAA Tournament that have, like UCI, never competed in the event.
Among the others who have yet to dance: Northwestern, Army, Grambling and The Citadel.
Though the UCI women's program loses virtually all of its top talent in a seven-player senior class led by Camille Buckley and Jennifer Tsuromoto, Coach Doug Oliver said if his staff is able to pull off a few things in spring recruiting — including the rumored arrival of some Division I transfers — they may be in position to again compete with the top half of the conference next season.
Absorbing the roof-lifting atmosphere in The Pit, the tiny, quirky, steamy Vanguard gym that played host to the Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament's men's final between the host Lions and Hope International — as well as the Hope women's team's GSAC tourney semifinal upset of the No. 1-ranked Lions — was and will remain memorable.
Senior GSAC Player of the Year Nicole Ballestero's school-record 53-point effort against Hope was one of the most spectacular individual performances I have ever witnessed.
The Vanguard men (27-6), who claimed their inaugural GSAC Tournament title, open the NAIA Tournament on Wednesday against Life University of Georgia (19-14). Tipoff is 3:15 p.m. PT in Kansas City, Mo.
Vanguard, which last made the men's national tournament in 2006, is the No. 6 seed.
The Vanguard women (26-1), ranked No. 1 all season, are the No. 1 seed in the NAIA Tournament, in which they open Thursday against Cal State San Marcos (15-17), at 7:45 p.m. PT in Frankfurt, Ky.
Coach Russ Davis' squad has already defeated Cal State San Marcos twice this season. Vanguard won, 78-54, on Dec. 17 and 91-54 on Dec. 30.