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This week in the Big West: First-place UC Irvine visits No. 7 Oregon in season’s biggest test before conference play begins

Plus, how last season’s conference and tournament champions are faring in this young season, and which other teams have tough games coming up before entering Big West play.

NCAA Basketball: Long Beach State at UC Irvine
The UC Irvine Anteaters are leading the Big West early, their 9-1 record representing a dramatic turnaround from their recent single-digit-win seasons. | EDITOR’S NOTE: At Swish Appeal, we prefer to feature the players we cover as the lead art for our articles, since they are the ones who make the game come alive in any given season. Unfortunately, these photos are not always available, leaving us to make do with what is available. Sometimes, all that is available is a photo of a mascot, an arena, cheerleaders or a men’s team — evidence of pervasive problems in women’s sports coverage that we at Swish Appeal would prefer to see addressed.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Just two seasons after finishing second from the bottom of the table, the UC Irvine Anteaters are off to their best start in program history, running away with the top spot in the Big West as non-conference play comes to a close. Last year’s 18-14 season — one in which the Anteaters improved their win total by 13 from the previous season — already looks in danger of being bested, a welcome change for a team that had three single-digit-win seasons in a row until 2017-18.

The Anteaters are on a weeklong swing through the Oregon schools right now, beating Portland and handing Portland State its first loss of the season. But today’s test against No. 7 Oregon will prove the Anteaters’ toughest test of the entire season by far (unless, of course, they should make the NCAA Tournament).

UCI and Oregon last met in 2011, their only meeting in Eugene until today. Oregon’s victory made it a 4-1 overall series lead for the Ducks. But that was before the Ducks experienced a massive swing from being a sub-.500 team to participating in consecutive Elite Eights in just three seasons. Oregon is a national championship contender once more this season, and with the weapons they have — including Sabrina Ionescu, who just yesterday broke the career NCAA triple-double record with her 13th — it’s not hard to see why.

To their credit, UC Irvine has been excellent on the road this season, winning all three true road games and both neutral-site games. Their one loss on the season to San Diego State came at home, a game where the Aztecs shot a devastating 60 percent from beyond the arc. With the Ducks shooting 40.7 percent from three, contributing to their NCAA-best 91.4 points per game, the Anteaters will want to keep an eye on ... well, everything that the Ducks have going offensively. While Oregon might be a little tired after playing just yesterday, it’s unwise to count on them being too fatigued to be effective.

With a two-and-a-half-game lead over their nearest Big West competitor, Cal State Fullerton, UCI can still maintain its dominance entering the conference season even if they lose tonight. Their final non-conference game is at home against 0-12 Seattle, so the Anteaters will have an excellent chance to recover against a beatable team. But if they can put up a good fight against the Ducks in a very hostile environment, it might not be so much a recovery game as a victory lap — no matter the outcome.

Anteaters in action

UC Irvine Anteaters (9-1) vs. No. 7 Oregon Ducks (10-1)

When: Friday, Dec. 21, at 3 p.m. ET

Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, OR

How to tune in: Oregon Live Stream

Notes: Assistant coach Mark Campbell will be leading the Ducks this afternoon due to head coach Kelly Graves’ two-game suspension. Graves served his first game of the suspension yesterday in Oregon’s win over Air Force.

Elsewhere in the Big West:

  • Second-place Cal State Fullerton is on a five-game winning streak, most recently beating the CCCAA’s Antelope Valley on Friday, 77-65. The Titans, who are celebrating their 50th season this year, host Pacific tomorrow (5 p.m. ET, BigWest.TV).
  • Last year’s regular-season champion UC Davis is also on a winning streak, having won their last four contests. The Aggies’ last two wins came in close games against WCC competition, as they beat San Francisco on the road and Saint Mary’s at home. Their next game is Saturday, Dec. 29, against Division II Dominican (5 p.m. ET, BigWest.TV).
  • Although their 6-7 record leaves much to be desired, defending Big West Tournament champion CSUN still boasts a Pac-12 victory this season, beating Washington State at the end of November. Their most recent game was a 36-point win over San José State, but they’ll likely run into some trouble against No. 8 Stanford in their next contest (Saturday, Dec. 29, 5 p.m. ET, Stanford Live Stream).
  • Big West Player of the Week honors went to UC Irvine’s Jordan Sanders, who put up a career-high 29 points on 72 percent shooting in the Anteaters’ win at Portland earlier this week.
  • In today’s other Big West action, UC Santa Barbara travels to San Diego State for a 4 p.m. ET tip (GameCentral audio). The Gauchos are trying to end a three-game losing streak.

Big West schedule and results