A prominent UCI sign at Crawford Hall, part of the Crawford Athletic Complex. UCI sign at Crawford Hall - the athletic complex.Photo by Allyunion at en.wikipedia [Attribution, CC BY-SA 3.0, GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], from Wikimedia Commons.
A prominent UCI sign at Crawford Hall, part of the Crawford Athletic Complex. UCI sign at Crawford Hall – the athletic complex.Photo by Allyunion at en.wikipedia [Attribution, CC BY-SA 3.0, GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

A watch party will be held at the Newkirk Alumni Center at UC Irvine for the telecast of the Anteaters’ debut in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Doors will open at noon, Friday with the tip-off of the East Regional game against Louisville from Seattle expected at approximately 1:10 p.m. Light refreshments will be provided. The game will be televised by cable’s TBS.

The Anteaters (21-12) are a decided underdog. Four oddsmakers have each installed the Cardinals (24-8) as an eight-point favorite. The ESPN-affiliated data prediction website FiveThirtyEight.com gives UC Irvine a 25 percent chance of winning.

Among the record 11.57 million brackets submitted to ESPN.com’s annual Men’s Tournament Challenge, 7.7 percent had the Anteaters defeating Louisville.

However, to UC Irvine guard Travis Souza, the upset by UAB, the 14th- seeded team in the South Regional, of third-seeded Iowa State, the first of Thursday’s three victories by teams seeded 11th or higher, “kind of proves the point that in March Madness, anyone can win.”

“It kind of assures us that although we know it’s going to be a big battle out there, we think we have the ability to pull it off,” Souza said before Thursday’s practice  in Seattle.

Roger Sherman of the website SB Nation supports the Anteaters’ chances, writing that they “could pull a giant upset against Louisville, thanks to the fact that they actually have a giant,” the 7-foot-6-inch center from Senegal, Mamadou Ndiaye, the tallest player in college basketball.

Two bits of history are against UC Irvine.

The Anteaters are seeded 13th in the 16-team East Regional, while Louisville is seeded fourth. Since the NCAA tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the 13th seed is 25-95 against the fourth seed, a .208 winning percentage.

A team from the Big West Conference, of which UC Irvine is a member, has not won a game in the round of 64 since 2005.

The Anteaters have drawn praise in at least two other areas — their nickname and prestigious collection of alumni.

The website NJ.com, affiliated with 12 New Jersey newspapers, ranked UC Irvine’s Peter the Anteater as “the No. 1 mascot” in the tournament, calling it “cute, uncommon and with that long tongue, useful.”

The Indianapolis Star chose six-member teams of prominent alumni of all the teams in the round of 64 and judged UC Irvine’s superior to Louisville.

The UC Irvine representatives were actors Jon Lovitz and Bob Gunton, the movie director and television producer McG, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks, four-time Olympic gold medal-winning diver Greg Louganis, and Roy Fielding, the computer scientist who was one of the principal authors of the HTTP specification.

The Louisville alumni were the late legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas; Jay Gruden, the coach of Washington’s NFL team; novelist Sue Grafton, NFL linebacker turned ESPN analyst Tom Jackson, Donald Elbert, who led the team of engineers that invented AstroTurf; and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

The media attention the team has received is unprecedented for a UC Irvine squad, according to Bob Olson, the university’s assistant athletic director-media relations.

“Our baseball and men’s volleyball programs have received great publicity while competing in national championships, but advancing to the NCAA tournament in men’s basketball has taken on a whole new level,” Olson told City News Service.

Interview requests began coming in late Saturday night, shortly after the Anteaters qualified for the tournament by defeating Hawaii, 67-58, in the Big West Conference Tournament championship game, Olson said.

Olson said he and his staff arranged around 15-20 individual interviews, with coach Russell Turner doing eight radio interviews on Monday “and several others since then.”

During the typical week in the regular season, Olson said he arranges for “maybe two or three” interviews.

UC Irvine opened in the fall of 1965 and began competing on the Division I level in 1977. The Anteaters had reached the finals of the Big West Conference tournament four times before Saturday’s victory, but had lost every time. The winner of the conference tournament receives an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.

When asked how UC Irvine hopes to benefit from its presence in the tournament, Olson replied, “I don’t think one can place a value on the exposure the tournament will bring our university in terms of media coverage and the potential for attracting more student-athletes in all sports and students in general and educating the nation and the world a bit more on what our university has to offer and what a great place it is.”

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