The UC Davis men’s basketball team is four wins from finding its way into your March Madness bracket.
With the regular season in the books, the Aggies head to the Anaheim Convention Center for their first-ever appearance in the Big West Conference Tournament. If they can win the conference crown, they’ll punch an automatic ticket to the Big Dance: the 64-team basketball palooza known as the NCAA Tournament.
Senior Vince Oliver and the Aggies have been waiting years for their chance at playoff basketball. UC Davis was ineligible for postseason play during its four-year transition to the Division I ranks.
“It’s finally here,” Oliver said of the Big West Tournament. “I’ve been talking about it all year. This is what I came here for.“
The Aggies aren’t exactly firing on as cylinders as they head to Southern California.
After clinching its spot in the Big West Tourney with a road win over Cal Poly on Feb. 18, UC Davis lost its four remaining contests to close out the regular season.
The four-game skid marks the longest of the campaign for UC Davis. It’ll look to put its losing ways to rest with the tournament’s win-or-go-home format starting Wednesday against UC Irvine.
“We’re not thinking about the losing streak,“ said sophomore Mark Payne. “We know how good we can be when we’re playing well.“
The eighth-seeded Aggies haven’t had any problems playing well against the fifth-seeded Anteaters this season.
UC Davis swept the season series with UC Irvine, knocking off the Anteaters on the road before netting an 85-76 win at the Pavilion on Feb. 12.
While UC Davis knows it needs four wins to head to the Big Dance, it isn’t looking past UC Irvine by any means.
“I don’t think you can look at it like four straight wins,“ said coach Gary Stewart. “We have to win one game, and then we’ll deal with whatever happens after we win a game. …Nothing’s promised to us except the game we’re going to play on Wednesday.“
Given their current losing skid, saying the Aggies are hungry for a tournament victory would be an understatement.
“We’re real hungry,” Oliver said. “The past four games have been tough, but at this point we think we’re due to break out and play like we know we can play.“
If UC Davis can get past UC Irvine, it’ll find itself pitted against the team it hasn’t beat in 47 tries: the third-seeded Pacific Tigers.
Don’t let that fool you, though. The Aggies wouldn’t let history get in the way against the Tigers.
“Right now, anybody can beat anybody on any given night,” Payne said.
That includes the Aggies beating the Tigers – and the Tigers know it.
“I don’t want to play those guys again,” said Pacific coach Bob Thomason after knocking UC Davis off in Stockton on Feb. 25. “They’ve got so much offensive firepower.“
Can the Aggies beat UC Irvine on Wednesday? Sure.
Can they take care of Pacific after that? They sure think so.
Can they beat top-seeded Cal State Northridge, which lost to Pacific on Saturday, after that to earn a berth in the conference finals? It’s all possible.
The fact of the matter is no one in the Big West is that much better – or worse – than anyone else in the conference. The name of the game has been parity all season. From winning the tournament to losing in the first round, nothing UC Davis does will be all that shocking.
The past doesn’t matter anymore. The present means everything. If the Aggies can manage to get now that it’s all on the line – and if the stars play nice and align properly – who knows? It could spell March Madness for UC Davis.
ADAM LOBERSTEIN is ready for playoff basketball. His gut tells him the Aggies are, too. He can be reached at email@example.com.