Last Updated: 2019-03-21
For the first time in a long time, the No. 4 Kansas State Wildcats are the pride of the Sunflower State. They beat out their more storied in-state rival Kansas for a share of the Big 12 regular season conference title, and they have continued to build after making the Elite Eight last season. Kansas State is the favorite to make it out of San Jose and into the Sweet 16 next weekend, but the Wildcats have a tricky test this Friday when they take on the No. 13 UC Irvine Anteaters in a South Division First Round tilt.
Although they are a #4 seed, Kansas State isn’t as big of a favorite as you might think. The Anteaters are playing somewhat close to home at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, and that has many thinking the Wildcats are on upset alert. The Wildcats are favored by just 4.5 points here, and the total is a very low 119. This game will be the first to tip off from San Jose at 2 p.m. ET, and the game will be broadcast on TBS. The winner will face either Wisconsin or Oregon on Sunday.
UC Irvine has won the Big West Conference in four of the last six seasons, but this is only the school’s second appearance at the NCAA Tournament. The Anteaters’ previous trip came in 2015, when they nearly upset Louisville as a No. 13 seed before falling 57-55. They are looking to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time ever.
The Wildcats were an elite program in the 1940s and 1950s, getting to the national championship game in 1951 and reaching the Final Four four times between 1948 and 1964. The program fell on hard times in the 1990s and 2000s, but Bruce Weber has brought it back to relevance in recent years. Kansas State was the beneficiary of UMBC’s upset of Virginia last year and made it to the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed after beating Creighton, UMBC, and Kentucky. With a trip to the Final Four on the line, they were crushed by darlings Loyola-Chicago though.
How They Got Here
To get back to the NCAA Tournament, UC Irvine needed to win the Big West Conference Tournament after coming up short twice in the last five years. Even though the Anteaters went 27-5 in the regular season, their best win came against Saint Mary’s and they suffered losses to Toledo, Butler, and Pacific in non-conference play. UC Irvine went 15-1 in its conference during the regular season and then cruised in the Big West Tournament, beating UC Riverside, Long Beach State, and Cal State Fullerton by an average of 18.3 points.
Kansas State didn’t look great at the start of the season, as the Wildcats lost a stunner to Tulsa and dropped their first two conference games. However, they righted the ship by winning 14 of their next 16 conference tilts, beating every Big 12 foe at least once along the way. After a 24-7 regular season, the Wildcats were assured of a place in March Madness, but they settled for a No. 4 seed after losing to Iowa State in the second game of the Big 12 Tournament.
The Anteaters are going to be a tough match-up for anyone. This is a deep team with lots of talented upperclassmen, and they are fantastic at collapsing to defend the paint. UC Irvine has the fifth-best defense in terms of effective field goal percentage, and the Anteaters are the best team in the country at stopping two-point field goals, allowing just 40.6 percent of two-pointers to go in.
That’s not good for a Kansas State team that struggles to hit field goals and isn’t great on the offensive end to begin with. The Wildcats have gotten it done through defense all year long, and they are outside the top 200 in every shooting category. The Wildcats have relied heavily on Dean Wade and Barry Brown when they need buckets, but UC Irvine should be able to shut down Wade on the interior and Brown has not been good from deep.
Kansas State has the fourth-best defense in the country according to Ken Pomeroy, and the Wildcats won’t allow you to score a lot of easy buckets. UC Irvine has been very good about not turning over the ball though, and that will be huge here.
Pick: UC Irvine +4.5
Do you smell an upset brewing? I do. This won’t be a pretty game as both teams try to win with defense, but UC Irvine has enough talent for me to think they can get the job done. The Anteaters are getting back Eyassu Worku after he had been sidelined by a leg injury, and Dean Wade looks to be doubtful with a lingering foot injury. This has all the makings of an upset.
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