Kamau Stokes couldn’t help but laugh.
Seconds after a reporter informed the Kansas State senior guard that some basketball experts were tabbing the UC Irvine Anteaters as a trendy upset pick to defeat the Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Stokes chuckled and shook his head.
“People doubted us when we were winning, people doubted us when we were losing,” Stokes said. “So that’s why I chuckled, because no matter what there will be people out there doubting you. It’s really up to us. So if we handle our business, there won’t be no upsets.”
Stokes didn’t mean to show any disrespect to UC Irvine with that response. He actually went on to say the Anteaters are a quality team that has a veteran roster.
K-State defeated UC Irvine 71-49 last season at Bramlage Coliseum, but he thinks this game will be much more difficult.
His teammate, Barry Brown, took things a step further.
“I respect them,” Brown said. “They have 30 wins this year they are a good team. It is all about respecting them and understanding they have everyone back from last year. We just got to go into the game understanding they could beat us and it is all about surviving and advancing, win or go home, do everything right. So we have to be ready to play.”
The Wildcats began learning more about UC Irvine on Monday.
Here are five things to know about K-State’s opponent in the first round of the NCAA Tournament:
1. UC Irvine is on a roll
The Anteaters enter the NCAA Tournament having won 16 straight games. At 30-5 they have one of the best records in college basketball. The vast majority of their wins came against other mid-majors, but UC Irvine did beat Texas A&M in November, as well as NCAA Tournament teams Montana and Saint Mary’s. An argument could be made this team was underseeded. It has a KenPom rating of 75, which is better than at-large teams Temple and St. John’s. The last time the Anteaters made the Big Dance, they gave Louisville all it wanted before losing 57-55 in the opening round. It’s easy to see why some experts like them.
2. No easy buckets
It’s very hard to find easy points against the Anteaters. Russell Turner’s team plays strong defense, particularly in the paint. UC Irvine ranks first nationally in field-goal percentage defense within the arc. Teams only made 40.6 percent of their shots from two-point range against UC Irvine this season. Jonathan Galloway, a 6-foot-10 senior forward, was such a good defender that he was able to earn first-team All-Big West honors while only averaging seven points. Elston Jones, a 6-9 forward, is also a rim protector. He led the team with 55 blocks this season.
3. Big roster
If Dean Wade is unavailable for this game because of a foot injury, Bruce Weber isn’t sure what starting lineup he will use against UC Irvine. He would probably like to go small with Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, Cartier Diarra, Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien (the same lineup that took K-State to the Elite Eight last season), but that might not be the best option against a big opponent like UC Irvine. The Wildcats might opt to go big themselves and start Levi Stockard or Austin Trice instead of Diarra. The Anteaters front-court rotation features five forwards 6-8 or taller.
4. Run and gun
Nothing really scares you about UC Irvine on the offensive end. The Anteaters are averaging 72.3 points, while making 45.5 percent of their shots from the field and 35.3 percent of their shots from three. But they can score in bunches. They reached 92 points in the Big West Tournament final and beat Cal Poly 110-72. Their season-low of 54 points came during a December loss at Butler. Junior guard Max Hazzard (12.5 points) is the team’s leading scorer.
5. K-State beat UC Irvine handily last season
It was far from a memorable game, but the Wildcats defeated UC Irvine 71-49 during the 2017-18 season at Bramlage Coliseum.
Here’s what happened if you forgot the details. K-State scored the first 11 points, but UC Irvine switched to a zone defense and pulled to within 20-15. Bruce Weber called it ugly basketball. But the Wildcats responded and took a 37-24 halftime lead before going on to win by a comfortable margin.
K-State put on a defensive clinic, holding all 11 UC Irvine players who saw action below double digits. Center Brad Greene, who hasn’t played this season, came off the bench to lead UC Irvine with nine points.
Kamau Stokes led K-State with 14 points in 28 minutes, while Xavier Sneed had 12 and and Cartier Diarra added 10. Barry Brown only had five points in that game.
The Wildcats made their living at the three-point line, making 9 of 19 perimeter shots. But they struggled from two-point range, going 15 for 42.