Are the patchwork Aggie men starting to gel?

By From page B1 | February 05, 2014


UCD's Iggy Nujic (1), a junior from Australia, has been asked to play inside more because of injuries to other players. The Aggies host Northridge on Thursday at 7 p.m. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise file photo

Let’s use baseball to lead into this basketball story.

Imagine you’re a life-long right fielder and the manager tells you just before the next game that you’re going to be the catcher. Or you’re a relief pitcher and you’ve just been asked to play shortstop.

You might need a bunch of practices, certainly a few games, before you are playing your new position effectively.

Most athletes would never adjust.

Now, imagine similar scenarios, only for this season’s UC Davis men’s basketball team.

The duo that Aggie fans thought would be this season’s starting frontline — J.T. Adenrele and Josh Ritchart — has played but nine games combined.

When Adenrele went down with an August knee injury, it forced a chain-reaction move to the front as UCD coach Jim Les asked Ritchart to be the inside force.

When Ritchart — who was doing very well — bowed out with a leg injury, wingmen Iggy Nujic and Georgi Funtarov were asked to play around the basket.

Meanwhile, other short-term injuries turned lineups into breakfast scrambles. Leading scorer Corey Hawkins, standout defender Avery Johnson, freshman guard Brynton Lemar and others missed time after getting banged up.

The result?

Heading into Thursday’s home game against Cal State Northridge (7 p.m.), the Aggies are 7-15 overall and 2-5 in Big West Conference play. It’s an effort that has the locals in last place in the nine-team circuit.

Knowing only eight of the nine BWC squads make the league’s postseason tournament, the current UCD goal must be to (at least) climb over one of the following teams: UC Riverside (7-14, 2-5), Cal State Fullerton (7-13, 2-4) or Northridge (11-12, 3-5).

With a win over the Matadors on Thursday, the Aggies will vacate the cellar.

After his team grabbed a 62-58 road win at Cal Poly on Saturday, Les thinks his patchwork quilt is starting to take shape.

“There are positives. We’re continuing to grow the culture of this program,” Les says. “Although we’ve dealt with a lot of adversity this year, I think those are character-builders and program-builders in terms of the challenge to be a successful Division I program.”

Neither Les nor his Aggies are ready to throw in the towel. The coach is encouraged by recent play and practice sessions.

“The other silver lining is that we’ve asked a lot of guys to play out of position,” the former Bradley player and coach explains. “Probably, as young players, play more minutes and be exposed to more experiences than maybe they’re ready for.

“But sometimes that baptism by fire (is) helpful. Guys expand their games and roles.”

Les believes, if nothing else, he’ll come out of 2013-14 with a versatile, experienced team. That’s good news for down the line, he says.

Les adds with Hawkins (17.9 ppg) playing point guard, it expands the former Arizona State guard’s repertoire and “builds his development as a leader.”

Les says freshmen Lemar and Darius Graham are growing fast, thrown into action instead of being brought along gradually:

“They’ve been asked to carry a great responsibility for this team.”

Then there’s Funtarov …

The 20-year-old Bulgarian freshman may have come the farthest the fastest.

“Here’s a young guy, came in here kinda wide-eyed and learning and growing,” Les remembers. “Then all of sudden with J.T. and Josh (out), it’s like ‘We not only need you to contribute, we need you to play big minutes and many times you’ll guard the other team’s best player. Oh, and we need you to rebound — and it would be nice if you could score, too.’”

Funtarov is averaging 9.7 points per game and leads active Aggies with 4.5 boards a night.

Les, whose team is 2-2 in its last four conference games, says UCD’s growth “hasn’t always shown up into a result at the end of a game, but the progress they’re making, there’s no question this team has grown, those individuals have grown.”

Eight Aggies are averaging more than 21 minutes a game as Les and Company search for the right combinations.

But that 58-point defensive effort at Cal Poly was a quick flash of what’s possible.

“It’s getting better,” Les continues. “(There were) instances — not enough, though — at Santa Barbara (an 82-67 loss Saturday) where we played good defense.”

After Northridge Thursday, UC Irvine is at The Pavilion Saturday for a 7 p.m. contest.

Meanwhile, facing those same schools this week, the Aggie women (9-11, 4-3 in Big West play) have a chance to move all the way into second place in league with a pair of road victories against the Matadors (10-12, 6-2) and the Anteaters (10-11, 3-4).

Of course, UCD — in a third-place tie with Long Beach State and Hawaii — needs a lot to go right (including a Fullerton win over the Northridge on Saturday), but the locals find themselves right in the first-division mix.

The Aggies lead the all-time series with CSUN, 16-14, but have lost the last three meetings — including a 56-52 decision last month at The Pavilion.

Sydnee Fipps is UCD’s top scorer at 17.5 ppg while Ashlee Guay (15.5) paced the Matadors.

— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.

Bruce Gallaudet

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