The writing is on the wall.
The UC Davis men’s basketball team’s third year under head coach Jim Les could be something special.
For sure, it will be fast-paced and another festival of threes. En route to a 14-17 record last season, the Aggies hit 40 percent of the 634 attempted 3-pointers.
UCD took a quantum leap forward last season, posting a nine-game win-column improvement from 2011-12.
The accomplishment was, in part, thanks to two of the nation’s most exciting guards — Big West scoring champion Corey Hawkins and the second-best 3-point percentage shooter in America, Ryan Sypkens.
The Aggies were nobody’s creampuff in conference, going from 3-13 in 2011-12 to 9-9 in league play last year, and almost upsetting three-time Big West champion Long Beach State in a nationally televised contest.
But that, and an 88-85 loss to UC Irvine at the end of the regular season, changed UCD’s seeding going into the league tournament — where the Aggies were one-and-done against Cal Poly.
Les says his players know that this time around things should improve, again.
“I’d be disappointed if we’re not a contender,” Les told The Enterprise. “The guys are working hard. It’s our third year now with our system in place and the guys have an expectation.
“I give them all the credit. The players have changed the culture of this program; they understand the work ethic is takes to be a championship contender and now — having knowledge of the system and with that culture change — every night we step on the floor, we have a chance to win.”
Hawkins, a junior transfer from Arizona State, averaged 20.3 ppg (13th-best in the nation) and was named to the All-Big West first team and crowned the league’s Newcomer of the Year.
His 40-point performance on Jan. 19 (in a 93-82 win at Hawaii) is a single-game school scoring mark.
After Hawkins’ breakout season, he’s now on everyone’s radar.
The son of former NBA standout Hersey Hawkins is one of six players from a mid-major conference to be named to the Lute Olson Preseason All-America Team. This week, CBSSports.com’s Garry Parrish put him among the nation’s top 100 college players — again, one of only a handful of mid-major athletes so named.
“To his credit, he’s maintained a workman-like demeanor,” Les says. “(He) hasn’t gotten caught up in all the (hype). I’m not even sure he knows about half of what goes on.
“He’s stayed true to who he is, which is a credit to him and a credit to his mom and dad. Corey is very grounded, very conscious of his teammates … making sure the perception of him among his teammates hasn’t changed, despite all the attention.”
While most lights shine on Hawkins, Franklin High product Sypkens is coming off a season in which he averaged 14.1 points per game while his 46 percent 3-point shooting was the second-best in college basketball.
Making 3.66 treys a night, Sypkens’ total ranked him fourth in the nation.
Aggie records? There were two from the long-range specialist: career (220) and single-season (106) threes made. Sypkens was accorded BWC honorable-mention honors.
“What I’ve said about Ryan — and I told him this — is he’s the best shooter in the country,” Les said of his senior. “I get to see him every day and the guy shoots the ball consistently. He shoots it from range and there isn’t a spot on the floor (from which he can’t make a shot).
“The greatest compliment to him is that when he does miss, I’m surprised.”
Mix in Tyler Les (guess who dad is) and redshirt freshman Darius Graham (Sacramento High) and the Aggies should continue to run, play an improved defense and rain down net crunchers from points unknown.
“(Darius) is our pace setter — our pace car,” says the former Bradley coach. “He’s got a gear to him that changes the way we play. He’s really good at making decisions while playing fast and, as good point guards do, he makes the people around him better because of what he can do and the pressure he’ll put on defenses.”
So how has Les’ kid Tyler evolved from those youthful days on the driveway?
“Thank goodness he shoots like his mother,” Dad, a former NBA player who could shoot from outside, says with a chuckle. “Now we’re just trying to make sure he doesn’t play defense like his father.”
A serious assessment from coach hinted at how important the younger Les has been to the Aggie improvement:
“Tyler’s an elite-level shooter (44 percent on threes). He’s also an under-rated passer and playmaker for us because he understands the game and knows where the ball should go. He’s become a much better defender, too.”
Inside, there are a handful of interchangeable parts that could see UCD play more physically under the basket.
“We are putting a bigger emphasis on being strong inside,” says four-year veteran Josh Ritchart, an Auburn native by way of Forest Lake Christian High. “Losing (J.T. Adenrele to a knee injury) didn’t help, but with the pieces we have, it will help make up for that.
“We have a lot of experience. We tied our (school) record for wins in Division I. Expectations are we want to improve upon that. We want to win the Big West.”
Just how much better will the Aggies be?
That remains a mystery, but like the coach indicates, this UCD squad seems to be champing at the bit to get going.
The Aggies travel to Cal for a scrimmage on Saturday, then play an exhibition game Nov. 4 against Menlo College (7 p.m.).
Things get underway in earnest at Portland (Nov. 8) before the Aggies open their home schedule with Holy Names of Oakland (Nov. 11, 7 p.m.).
“We’ll have a really good idea Saturday when we scrimmage Cal as to where we’re at in the progress we’re making,” Les adds. “The guys are fired up.”
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.