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Monday, April 22, 2024

Column: The blame game

When things go wrong it becomes only natural to point the finger.

Over the past several months, the talk of the UC Davis athletics community has centered on the struggles of the men’s basketball team.

With a team that has yet to defeat a Division I school and has been in and out of the bottom spot in the NCAA’s national RPI rankings, many — including me — have been highly critical of the team’s performance this season. So the question quickly becomes: where should the blame lie?

Some might point to the players. The men on the court are easily visible, and the simple solution is to criticize their skill level and work ethic.

But jumping on the back of the players is a misguided approach when looking at the Aggies.

Sure, UC Davis’ talent level is well below Big West Conference powers UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State — let alone the NCAA’s top squads. It probably doesn’t even compare to the 2009-10 UC Davis roster that included Mark Payne, Joe Harden and Dominic Calegari, among others, but this year’s team is nowhere near the worst group of players in the nation.

Anyone who has watched the Aggies at length this season knows that the players have been working hard on the floor. They have been close in nearly every game this year, but they lack the poise to close games out in the final 10 minutes.

While this is certainly a big problem for a team that is going to be hard pressed to blow anyone out, it is also worth noting that this squad is very young, and veteran players such as Eddie Miller, Harrison DuPont, Ryan Sypkens and Ryan Howley have all missed time at some point this season due to injury.

So if the players aren’t to blame, then the next logical choice is the coach. There have even been some calls for Jim Les to be removed from the head coaching position after just one season.

Les certainly should shoulder some of the blame.

He claims to pride himself on his team’s defense, but the Aggies’ have had difficulty preventing opponents from scoring.

Furthermore, while inexperience is a partial explanation, Les must also take some responsibility for his team’s lack of composure in close games.

But even so, calling for Les’ head at this point is nowhere short of ridiculous.

While his results on the floor have been frustrating to say the least, Les’ first recruiting class was the most talented and deepest that UC Davis has had over the past several seasons — and could ultimately prove to be the best group of players in UC Davis history.

More importantly, however, it must be acknowledged that Les took over with a nearly impossible rebuilding task — a task that will undoubtedly take at least a few years.

So if Les is doesn’t take the brunt of the blame, then who does?

The answer is the man who left Les with a program in shambles. The man who single-handily burned the UC Davis men’s basketball program to the ground — former head coach Gary Stewart (freshmen: take notes).

Throughout his tenure with the Aggies, Stewart struggled to produce wins.

He was successful in bringing in talented athletes, but when it came to developing talent Stewart was an abject failure. The most obvious case in recent years was the development (or lack thereof) of Mark Payne, who graduated at the end of last season.

Payne entered UC Davis as an incredibly skilled player, who could shoot the three, attack the rim and play solid defense. During his sophomore season he drew the eye of NBA scouts, who believed he could develop into a top-level talent.

But after four years under the coaching of Stewart, Payne received only a passing glance from NBA scouts following his graduation, and is now playing in Spain’s second division.

The Stewart debacle reached its low-point at the end of the 2009-10 season, when eight of his own players submitted a petition to then Athletics Director Greg Warzecka requesting that Stewart be fired.

The players cited Stewart’s use of mind games as well as his inability to develop talent.

Warzecka — in a move that defies explanation — chose to retain Stewart for another season — a decision that remains a black mark on Warzecka’s otherwise impressive tenure as Athletics Director.

Stewart is now the head coach of Division III Stevenson University, where he is 4-12 this season.

While Stewart may have moved on to a university thousands of miles away, his mindset still plagues the UC Davis players, coaches and fans — and that’s where most of the blame lies for the disaster that has been the 2011-12 season.

When the game comes to crunch-time, the lack of confidence is palpable to everyone in The Pavilion.

Breaking the mindset will be a process — one that has barely begun.

This team might not learn how to win close games at any point this season, and UC Davis may struggle to move off the bottom of the RPI.

This season has been embarrassing for anyone affiliated with the UC Davis men’s basketball program, and there is no excuse for a 16 game losing streak (and counting), but once this season is over UC Davis has a chance to continue rebuilding.

With this group of freshmen and a head coach with NCAA Tournament experience, the Aggies could be ready to compete for a Big West Title by the 2014-15 season.

They just need to exorcise the ghost of Gary Stewart before they can get there, and that requires time.

TREVOR CRAMER can be reached at sports@theaggie.org.

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