UC Irvine 86, Washington 72

Doing a little traveling this week, but basketball season never stops. That’s why I took a trip over to Alaska Airlines Arena on Thursday night to watch Washington take on UC Irvine.

All I knew about UC Irvine going into the game was that they were 0-2 overall and have an awesome nickname – Anteaters! It turns out there was a whole lot more to enjoy.

The game was part of the 2K Sports Classic and Washington is already guaranteed a trip to Madison Square Garden later this month to play in the semifinals against Indiana. Still, UC Irvine wasn’t interested in being a sacrificial lamb. And the Anteaters happen to the perfect lineup construction to go against Lorenzo Romar’s team right now. In the end UCI ended up coasting to a 14-point win that wasn’t in doubt for the final 12 minutes or so of the second half.

How could a Big West team walk into a Pac-12 gym in and dominate? UC Irvine has size. Washington just doesn’t right now, mostly due to injuries and just Romar’s roster construction strategies. Will Davis II is a talented mid-major forward who is listed at 6’8″ for UCI. He averaged 9.7 points per game in 25.3 minutes per game as a sophomore. Davis shot 10-12 from the field against Washington. He had a variety of dunks, slicing layups and transition buckets and ended up with 22 points. The starting big man was even more intriguing. The Anteaters have a 7’6″ freshman named Mamadou Ndiaye as their starting center. In just his third collegiate game Ndiaye went off for 18 points (7-9 shooting), eight rebounds and a Big West record nine blocks. It was an absolute tour de force.

Ndiaye dominated both ends of the floor during the game. He certainly doesn’t look like a freshman either. He’s got broad shoulders and was able to effectively create space for himself on the block. If UCI threw the ball high enough no one else was getting to it. He also showed a quick first move around the rim. He needs a post move other than spinning towards the hoop and dunking, but there’s definitely talent there.

On the defensive end the same skills make Ndiaye a terrifying shot blocker in the paint. Washington managed to float a couple shots over his outstretched hands, but everything was altered when he was on the court because you have to arc the ball over such an intimidating defender. Ndiaye’s most impressive play was coming across the lane to reject a Husky in help defense.

How did such a talented player even end up at UC Irvine? Well, he did have a few surgeries (h/t @jorcubsdan) and has certainly had an interesting life since arriving. He was an ESPN and Rivals Top 100 recruit. He had offers from Georgetown, Oregon and Pepperdine. UCI has had some success getting 7-footers to commit under Russell Turner – there are three on the Anteaters’ roster. One game a decision make, but it was certainly worth it.

UCI has been picked as the favorite in the Big West this season and I can see why. The Anteaters need to improve their free throw shooting (they shot 16-33, 49% from the line), but there’s certainly a lot of talent there and some big men to help power through.

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