There are really only two schools of thought when it comes to the UC Davis men’s basketball team and its performance this winter.
One is that the 2012-13 incarnation of the Aggies had the potential to go further than any other team in school history, but squandered too many games with its inconsistent commitment to defense and its inability to finish down the stretch.
The other way to look at it is that UCD’s struggles were the product of its youthfulness and inexperience, and that the talent it flashed should be seen as a good omen, a preview of how good the Aggies (14-17, 9-9 in Big West Conference play) can be in the next few years.
Obviously, UCD head coach Jim Les — along with his staff, players and all of the Aggie fans — would like to think that the second theory is the truth. And their optimism is certainly not blind.
Take, for instance, the play of the Aggies against their toughest competition. There was the season opener in Stillwater, Okla., in which UCD was a few plays away from knocking off Big-12 powerhouse Oklahoma State. The Cowboys, who pulled out the game in the end, 73-65, went on to earn a fifth seed in the NCAA college basketball tournament. They were upset in their opener by Pac-12 champion Oregon on Wednesday.
The Aggies also posted two competitive losses to Pacific — another NCAA tournament team that made The Big Dance by claiming the Big West crown — and a near-victory against Long Beach State, a mid-major force in recent years, in UCD’s first ever nationally televised home game.
Playing on ESPN2, and in front of a sold-out crowd that filled even the loftiest bleachers at The Pavilion, the Aggies gave the 49ers a run for their money behind the play of their star sophomore, Corey Hawkins, who introduced himself to the nation with a game-high 34 points.
But with UCD trailing LBSU in the final minutes, Hawkins keeled over at midcourt with severe leg cramps and was unable to return. Teammate Ryan Howley came up short moments later on a potential game-winning 3-pointer that rolled around the inside of the rim before popping out as the buzzer sounded — leaving Aggie players, coaches and fans to curse their bad luck.
Then there was the season-ending loss to Cal Poly in the opening round of the conference tournament. UCD, the sixth seed, trailed the third-seeded Mustangs by a single point at halftime and seemed to be on the verge of pulling ahead before falling apart in the second half and losing, 64-41.
“We didn’t play our best basketball (against Cal Poly),” Les told The Enterprise. “We were certainly far from being 100 percent as a team.”
The close loss was a recurring theme during the season, as 13 of UCD’s 17 defeats came by 10 points or less.
While the Aggies could have done without the heartbreakers, they showed in those games that they could go toe-to-toe with anybody on their schedule. And it wasn’t like they didn’t have their fair share of victories.
They beat Cal Poly and Northern Colorado on buzzer-beaters by Hawkins and Paolo Mancasola, respectively, swept Hawaii behind 40- and 21-point nights from Hawkins, and went on a 5-1 roll late in the season.
“(The players) had a really good work ethic,” Les said. “They were really coachable. They were really dedicated to each other.
“The buy-in from our players was excellent and that put us in position to get better later in the year.”
The Aggies also saw a host of players turn in impressive years. Hawkins led the Big West in scoring at 22.5 points per game en route to securing a spot on the all-league first team and the conference’s Newcomer of the Year Award. Junior Ryan Sypkens finished among the nation’s leaders in 3-point field-goal percentage (.468) and treys made per game (3.78). Sypkens and sophomore J.T. Adenrele, who averaged 12.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, both received Big West honorable mentions.
UCD’s Big Three will all be back next season. Joining them will be key reserves Josh Ritchart, who was fourth on the team in scoring at 7.8 points per game, and Tyler Les, who was the team’s second best 3-point shooter after Sypkens.
In fact, the Aggies are expected to lose only two players off of this year’s squad — Howley and Mancasola. Both started and played important roles this winter — Mancasola led the team in assists and Howley provided everything from rebounding to perimeter defense — and UCD will have a tough time replacing them.
“Those two were warriors,” Jim Les said. “I credit them and will be forever grateful to them for establishing (a) foundation (for the team).”
But the Aggies will get reinforcements in the form of Avery Johnson, a 6-foot-3 junior guard who was required to sit out the 2012-13 season after transferring from the University of San Francisco; Darius Graham, who is expected to return from a season-ending injury; and Brynton Lemar, a new recruit. Lemar turned in a memorable prep career as a point guard at St. Augustine and his creative passes are featured several YouTube clips.
With the increased depth, coach Les is optimistic about next season, saying this week that UCD’s goal is to continue to improve its record. After going from 5-26 two years ago to 14-17 this past season, Les hopes to win at least 20 games in 2013-14.
“You’ve got to be consistent,” he replied when asked what it will take to get his team to that new landmark. “You’ve got to beat your fair share of teams.”
— Reach Will Bellamy at email@example.com