Aggies enter the season looking to silence the doubters
This November marks the beginning of a new season for the UC Davis men’s basketball team, which started off the 2019-20 campaign on Nov. 5 in the Windy City. Senior center Matt Neufeld led the Aggies with 15 points on 7-11 shooting, but UC Davis couldn’t quite match the firepower of Loyola Chicago, which coasted to a 82-48 win. Two days later, however, the Aggies rebounded and defeated William Jessup by 46 points in the home opener at The Pavilion.
After finishing seventh in the Big West Conference last season and losing in overtime to Cal State Fullerton in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament, this season is setting up to be an intriguing one for the Aggies. With the start of the new season, a lot remains up in the air in terms of the team’s starting rotation, as the long offseason and this hard-fought preseason will have every player competing for minutes.
After losing five seniors — four of whom were starters — at the conclusion of last year, including 2017-18 Big West Player of the Year TJ Shorts II, this season is a major one for Coach Les and his staff as they try to establish an identity for a team with many new faces. Returning fifth-year seniors Neufeld, Joe Mooney, Stefan Gonzalez and Rogers Printup will likely be heavily relied upon given that they are the Aggies who possess the most experience on team. Their leadership both on and off the court will be a driving force of the team’s success.
“What I like is we’re getting good leadership from our seniors,” head coach Jim Les said following the game on Nov. 7. “They’re all fifth-year guys, they all have a good understanding of our program. They’re giving a visual example day in and day out what we want Aggie basketball to look like.”
Only two other players on this season’s roster, sophomore guards Damion Squire and Caleb Fuller, have prior playing experience at UC Davis. Squire and Fuller started in 12 and 7 games last year, respectively, and will look for expanded roles this upcoming season.
Still, many of the rotations and playing time decisions have yet to be made this early in the season, giving the team’s seven new players something to fight for early on.
With a roster turnover of this size comes the potential for young players to take on bigger roles, and freshman guards Elijah Pepper and Ezra Manjon seem to be putting themselves at the forefront of this conversation.
Pepper, who was the 2017-18 Washington State 2A Player of the Year back in high school, has played significant minutes through the first two games of this season. While he struggled shooting the ball, he’s looking to be placed off the bench this season and has the potential to take on an expanded role moving forward.
Manjon, likewise, has brought a lot of excitement and energy to this team, and could be the x-factor that the Aggies are looking for. Having led his high school to a CIF North Division I title last year, Manjon has started each of the first two games and finished second on the team in scoring in both contests. In the win over William Jessup, he poured in 16 points, five rebounds, and led the Aggies with seven assists.
“[Manjon is] a really good player,” Les said. “He falls into line and we’ve had some really good point guards here over the years. He’s humble, he’s hungry, he works really hard — has a competitive spirit about him. We’re giving him the keys to the car, and so far he’s doing a good job of driving us around.”
And so far, Manjon has felt quite comfortable in the driver’s seat, as evidenced by his contributions in the first two games. He credits his early success to his teammates and coaching staff.
“It’s easy to play with this team,” Manjon said. “My teammates are great, so it’s easy to play with them. I’m really comfortable with my coaches. They make it really easy for me to play.”
As was the case last year, the Aggies again have a tough non-conference schedule this season. Starting Nov. 14, the team will play a string of eight consecutive road games against teams like Cal, Utah and Idaho before returning to Davis on Dec. 7 to play Northern Illinois. This three-week stretch will be an important test for this team, as it looks to grow and improve, according to Les.
“[We want to] continue to build on the momentum, especially on the defensive end,” Les explained. “We’re committed to going deep into our bench. We want to sustain the intensity, especially on defense. Go hard for four, five minutes, we’ll sub you out and throw another guy in there for four or five minutes. And we think that creates a really good pace for us that over forty minutes will wear people down.”
Following the game on Dec. 7, the Aggies will have two more home contests to close out the non-conference schedule: a game against Loyola Marymount on Dec. 16 and then another one against Holy Names for their first game in 2020 on Jan. 3. Sprinkled in before and in between those games are a few key road matchups against the University of San Diego, University of San Francisco and New Mexico.
UC Davis will finally host its Big West Conference opener against UC Riverside on Jan. 9. The Aggies will have a tough conference schedule from the get-go, beginning on Jan. 18, when they travel to Northridge to take on the CSUN Matadors. The games that follow will be against Cal State Fullerton at home, Hawaii on the road, and defending Big West champion UC Irvine twice in the span of a week — making that four consecutive games against the conference’s top-five projected teams. UC Davis’ final game at the Pavilion will be against Hawaii on March 5 before the team closes out the regular season in Riverside on March 7.
According to the Big West media poll, UC Davis is projected to finish in eighth, or second to last in the conference. The Aggies are well aware of the pre-season rankings, and they feel that, even though they lost a few important players from last season, they are on a mission to prove the doubters wrong.
“We’re really just trying to prove something because people are doubting us right now, because we lost a lot of good players,” Manjon added. “But we’re just trying to prove that we’re still in it, we’re still good and we’re just trying to be aggressive with every team we [face].”
It’ll be a unique season for the Aggies as they adjust to a new roster and incorporate new faces onto this squad. They are confident, however, that they will be able to remain competitive this year. Veteran leadership combined with a young nucleus of players that possess the potential and energy to win have the Aggies excited about the upcoming season as they look to get back to their championship-winning days.
Written by: Omar Navarro — firstname.lastname@example.org