Men’s basketball welcomes fresh start as Big West play begins

Men’s basketball welcomes fresh start as Big West play begins

Photo Credits: ADAM BRIDGE / COURTESY

Aggies remain optimistic after difficult 4-10 non-conference run

The UC Davis men’s basketball team has enjoyed a journey of unprecedented success over the last two seasons.

The team made history with a run to the NCAA Tournament in the winter of 2017 and came within two victories of doing it again last season.

As a result, it should come as no surprise that the expectations were very high entering this current season, especially considering the number of seniors and amount of overall experience on the roster. UC Davis was picked by 24 media members to finish third in the Big West this season, according to the conference’s official preseason poll.

Long before this campaign began, many of those veteran players made a plea to Head Coach Jim Les to ramp up the team’s non-conference schedule this year so they could test their abilities against superior competition. Les obliged and did not pull any punches, putting together a demanding preseason slate and setting up dates with traditional powerhouses like Arkansas, Indiana, Arizona and USC among others.

Being in a mid-major conference like the Big West, UC Davis knows that its only real path to the NCAA Tournament is by taking home the conference title in mid-March at the Big West Tournament in Anaheim. Anything the team does in non-conference play is an added bonus, so they don’t have much to lose by scheduling tough opponents.

Needless to say, the Aggies had their struggles through November and December, losing 10 out of 14 games and winning just once away from the Pavilion. Nonetheless, one of the important details that gets lost when simply looking at the win-loss record is the fact that UC Davis was incredibly competitive and hung around in the majority of these contests, often trailing by single digits late into the second half. The Aggies typically started off strong in the first half of most games but struggled to retain that level of play for the full 40 minutes.

Playing in a hostile environment halfway across the country on Black Friday, UC Davis had Indiana on the ropes with an eight-point lead in the second half but could not seal the deal. In another road game against Arizona in mid-December, the Aggies fell on a game-winning shot in the final minute of regulation. Lastly, the team finished out its roadtrip with a tough battle against USC that saw them hold an advantage early in the second half before tailing off.

If nothing else, this challenging stretch of basketball has served as a wake-up call for the team and has shown them what areas they need to improve on.

“I think we played some really good teams and [had] really good competition,” Les said. “It’s accentuated what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are, so it’s out there.”

In response, UC Davis has altered some of its practice routines and tried to pinpoint where it has gone wrong thus far.

“We picked up the competitiveness in practice and tried to figure out those deep-rooted problems, and I think we’re getting there,” said senior guard Siler Schneider.

In a way, the string of tough losses also gave the team some confidence, as it offered a glimpse into what they are capable of doing when everything comes together.

“I think the takeaway is that we can really play with anybody,” said senior guard T.J. Shorts II. “When we’re clicking on the defensive end and we’re getting out and doing our stuff on the offensive end, we can really compete with anybody. We just got to take that confidence from those first halves and put it together when we go into conference, and play two halves of basketball everytime we step on the court and we’ll be alright.”

UC Davis’ four victories included an overtime triumph over Texas A&M Corpus Christi and blowouts over Northern Arizona, William Jessup and Holy Names.

Les and his players know what their winning formula is and realize that it all starts on the defensive end of the floor.

“We don’t have a false sense of security,” Les said. “We know who we are and what it takes to be successful. The stats are pretty clear—when we defend and hold teams to a low shooting percentage, come up with first rebounds and create turnovers, we give ourselves a chance to win.”

Overall, the players don’t regret asking for a tougher non-conference schedule and ultimately think the experience will pay dividends down the line.

“How we finish at the end of the season will tell us if it helped or hurt us,” Schneider said. “I don’t regret anything. We’ve figured ourselves out and learned things within ourselves that we might not have with an easier non-conference schedule. Hopefully it’ll be a blessing in disguise.”

The Aggies view the start of Big West play as a chance to reset, both physically and mentally, and prepare themselves for the grueling conference schedule that extends nonstop until early March. This has always been a philosophy of Les’ teams over the years.

“We’ve reset it every year regardless of what our record was,” Les said. “You can’t rest on your laurels if you had a great non-conference because now you can get humbled quickly in conference and vice versa.”

In order for the team to reach its ultimate goal of winning the conference, the Aggies know they have to pick up their level of play away from the friendly confines of the Pavilion.

“We respect the grind of a conference season and we know how hard it is to go on the road and get conference wins,” Les said. “You put yourself in a position to contend when you go out on the road and steal some victories, and that’s we plan to do.”

That plan has not gotten off to a great start, as the Aggies dropped both games of their road trip to Southern California last week. On Thursday night, UC Davis overcame a 16-point deficit in the second half and forced overtime against UC Irvine, but ended up falling 71-69. The Aggies came out hot against Long Beach State on Saturday afternoon, but watched an eight-point halftime lead slip away in the 82-77 loss.

At the end of the day, UC Davis has no reason to push the panic button just yet. The team has been in tough situations countless times over the last few years and has always found ways to stick together and overcome adversity.

“I’m excited for this group and the level that they’re going to compete when we hit the league season,” Les said. “We’re not an unproven commodity and these guys have proven they can be successful, so I’m looking forward to that.”

The Aggies are well aware that championships are not won in December and know that they have time left to right the ship.

“We got a lot of confidence,” Schneider said. “I know it might not show with our record, but we’ve been practicing really well and clicking and we’re ready to start this new year off right. This is a senior-led group and an experienced team, but there’s still a lot of kinks to work out with that, so it all matters on how you finish the year.”

UC Davis hopes that a return to the Pavilion can help jumpstart its Big West campaign. The team will take on UC Santa Barbara on Thursday at 7 p.m., before facing Cal Poly on Saturday evening at 5 p.m.

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org