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Saturday, April 20, 2024

UC Davis men’s basketball 2021-22 season preview

After last years rollercoaster season, the Aggies hope the return to some normalcy sparks a special season

By OMAR NAVARRO — sports@theaggie.org

When the UC Davis men’s basketball team was forced to pause basketball activity due to local county guidelines in early December 2020, no one around the team knew what was next. Not only could they not play, but they also couldn’t practice as a team or do any team activities. All that was left was wait, see and hope that the pandemic got better in the county. They eventually returned to action after seven long weeks, and strung together some wins — six of their last seven regular season games to be exact — that ultimately led them to the Big West Tournament, where they would fall to the No. 1 seed UC Santa Barbara. Nonetheless, with the UC Davis campus reopened and classes once again in person, the team welcomes a breath of some kind of normalcy again. 

“It’s definitely good to have school kind of regular again,” second-year and two-time Big West All-Second team selection Ezra Manjon said. “It feels good to see everybody on campus and be in in-person class. It feels like a normal college year again.” 

Not only do students feel relieved to be back, but it has re-energized the team as well. 

“It’s awesome. This is such a great place and so vibrant when the students are back so it’s great to have that,” head coach Jim Les, who is entering his 11th season at the helm, said. “There are still some protocols in place which is great because it keeps everyone safe, but to have everyone back and moving toward close to normal is a great feeling.” 

As mentioned, protocols are still in place, but having the ability to return has given the team something they didn’t have last year — a normal offseason. They could train together, build chemistry and play as a team rather than previously, before last season, when they worked out individually. 

“A normal offseason for us was huge,” Les said. “We were able to have our normal summer, our normal preseason, whereas last year, we didn’t have any of that. In fact, our preseason [last year] we were out at the Dairy Courts, working out one-on-one with gloves and masks on. So, it’s nice to have that behind us and have a normal offseason so we could grow, work and continue to prepare for the upcoming season, so [I’m] excited about that and how hard this group has worked.”

After losing in the Big West Tournament semifinal last year and finishing the season at 10-8, the Aggies commence their non-conference play in Logan, Utah against Utah State before they have their home opener against Eastern Washington on Nov. 12. This will mark the first time UC Davis will play a home game with fans in the arena since March 2020, something that the team was missing last year. 

“Can’t wait just to have some energy and enthusiasm from our students, the band, from our fans, season ticket holders and fans of our program,” Les said. “Can’t wait. [Last season] you really had to self-motivate. That wasn’t always easy, but [the team] rallied around each other, cheered for each other. We made up for the loss, but thank goodness we don’t have to do that this year.”

To continue their tough tests before Big West Conference play, they travel to Pepperdine on Nov. 17, then take on Causeway rival Sacramento St. on Nov. 23 at the Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings. 

“[The team] is super excited,” Manjon said about the team’s energy. “I think it’s going to go really well. Our team is looking really nice right now. Our last scrimmage we did really well, so I’m really confident about this team.”

After the Causeway Classic, the team will begin a non-conference homestand against Academy of Arts (Nov. 28), Pacific University (Dec. 1) and UC Merced (Dec. 4) before they face arguably their biggest test of the non-conference games at Oregon State. The Beavers won the Pac-12 Tournament last year and made a run in the NCAA Tournament before they lost in the Elite Eight. Although they are missing some pieces from last year, traveling to Corvallis will not be an easy task. 

On Dec. 19 they take a trip down the I-5 to Stockton, where they will play Pacific once again before closing out non conference play on Dec. 22 against the University of Portland. To limit travel last season, Big West Conference play consisted of doubleheaders against the same team. This time around, it is not the case, so when the Aggies open up conference play against UC Riverside on Dec. 28, they will have to travel to Hawaii just two days later. For the first games of winter quarter, UC Davis hosts the Big West favorite UC Irvine in an early season clash. They then play UC San Diego on a Saturday afternoon game on Jan. 8, before they begin a road trip to visit CSU Bakersfield, Cal Poly, CSUN and UC Santa Barbara between Jan. 13-22.

They return home on Jan. 27 to play Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, before they return to the road again on Feb. 1 to face UC Riverside once again. On Feb. 5, they host Hawaii, and the following week make a trip to Southern California to visit UC San Diego and UC Irvine for the second time. Although they do have a lot of away games early in conference play, that will eventually turn for the better for UC Davis, as they will have a four-game homestand between Feb. 17-26 in a crucial part of the season, playing Cal Poly, CSU Bakersfield, UC Santa Barbara and CSUN in the final home games of the year. To finish off the regular season, they once again travel to Southern California and play Long Beach State on March 3 and their final game will be March 5 against Cal State Fullerton.

“This is a talented group,” Les said. “It’s a group that we feel is very deep, and I think our fans are going to love watching this team and watching them grow. Our expectation is come March, we are going to be in the hunt for a Big West title.”

With only three upperclassmen on the roster, the team will be very young as Les mentioned. But, with the return of stars like Manjon (15.6 points and 3.3 assists a game last year), 2020-21 All-Big West Conference Second Team selection Elijah Pepper (14.7 points and 5 rebounds a game) and 2021 Big West Conference All-Academic Team selection Caleb Fuller (10.3 points and 3.4 rebounds a game including a 30-point game last season), the core of the group will be set and has major experience. Not only that, but they expect big contributions from Christian Anigwe, who did not play last season until mid-December due to NCAA transfer policies that were later updated but provided great minutes when the team wanted to run a smaller lineup.

“I think [the fans] are going to get to know a lot of the new guys,” Manjon said. “We got Christian Anigwe, our big man; I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. I think Aggie fans should look forward to seeing Christian play. Obviously Elijah Pepper, who’s a bucket. Ade [Adebayo] is a guy you also have to watch out for. He’s a crazy defender and has blocks. Caleb Fuller, you guys know him, great scorer. We got a transfer from Nevada, Kane Milling, who’s a sniper from the three-point range. We got a lot of pieces that are going to be really good this year.”

As Manjon mentioned, contributions will come from those he named as well as everyone on the team. Coach Les has shown in the past that he does not fear playing younger players if need be, so throughout the season, it will be interesting to see how he maneuvers the rotation. As for Manjon, he hopes to enhance not only his on-court success but off-court as well. 

“I think the biggest thing for me this year is being a leader on and off the court,” Manjon said. “That leadership [role] is something that has been passed down to me [since] my freshman year. My [second year] it was a little bit wacky because of how weird the year was but now I think I’m ready to step into that role and lead the team to win some games this year.” 

Overall, the Aggies have entered the season focused and reenergized, as they hope to get back to the NCAA Tournament like they did in 2017. Having gotten one step closer last year, UC Davis is projected in third in the Big West preseason media poll. The non-conference games will be a good test for the team, but the return of a more normal schedule could be what the Aggies needed as they look to go dancing one more time.

“We’re thinking, get to March Madness and win games,” Manjon said. “That’s the goal right now. The goal is to get better everyday and win one game at a time, but the ultimate goal is to get to March Madness and win games. I think this group can definitely win a lot of games.” 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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