Slow the game down. Take away the three. Box out.
That was the formula opposing squads followed when taking on the UC Davis men’s basketball team last season. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to beat the Aggies.
UCD’s lack of size left it unable to keep opposing big men from getting easy rebounds, which they too often turned into second-chance points. On the other end of the floor, the Aggies couldn’t consistently score inside and ended up living and — more often — dying by the three and transition game. All of it resulted in an overall record of 5-26 (3-13 in Big West Conference play).
Fortunately for UCD fans, the 2012-2013 Aggies look to be a very different squad.
Up to seven players — nearly half of the roster — could take the court in a blue and gold uniform for the first time when the Aggies play at Oklahoma State in their season opener on Friday night.
Guard Corey Hawkins has been the most notable addition. He was ranked third in the nation in scoring as a high school senior and played one year of basketball at Arizona State before transferring to UCD last year and sitting out the season — as required by the NCAA’s transfer rules. He had a combined 23 points and 10 rebounds in the Aggies’s two preseason games — both wins — against UC Santa Cruz and Menlo College.
“I just want to come in and be a leader and lead the team,” Hawkins said. “(My focus is) to build my teammates up, make sure they’re on point, make sure they’re doing what they need to do, make sure they’re putting the ball in the hole. I’m not worried about myself.”
However, Hawkins is far from being the only new face to watch. Junior college transfers Clayton Spencer and Clint Bozner, who are 6-foot-10 and 6-8, respectively, should do wonders for the team’s interior defense and rebounding. In limited action against Menlo, the two wrestled with opposing players in the post and brought the kind of physical play the Aggies sorely lacked down low last season.
“We’ve got to rebound by committee. We don’t necessarily have one dominant rebounder,” said second-year UCD head coach Jim Les, a former Sacramento Kings player. “We’ve all got to chip in. And those big guys have to hold their own and give us a fresh, physical interior presence.”
Also new to the mix will be a pair of freshman guards, Betu Olivier-Paul (from Montreal, Canada) and Darius Graham, and two more forwards, Justin Dueck and Tyler Ott.
But the new players aren’t the only changes UCD has made. Les says the team has altered its whole approach to the game:
“We started with a change of the culture. I think the guys who returned from last year’s team brought a really good work ethic, both in the weight room and in our preseason workouts.
“The culture surrounding the team is really good and the new guys have bought into (it).”
The development of the returning players might have an even larger effect on the Aggies than the new additions.
Sophomore forward J.T. Adenrele, in particular, looks much improved. Last year, as a freshman, he averaged 5.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. Now, after an offseason of building muscle and working on his hook shot, Adenrele is primed to become the team’s anchor inside, both on offense and defense.
The 6-7, 225-pounder had 11 points and six rebounds against Santa Cruz, then 19 and eight against Menlo.
“All the credit goes to him,” Les said. “He has put in a lot of work in the weight room and if you saw him last year, you would see he’s bigger and stronger. His practice intensity has been really, really good. He wants to get better, he wants to be coached, and it’s just nice to see him grow and get better and gain confidence.
“With the shooters we can put on the floor, he’s going to get one-on-one coverage in the post and he’s tough to handle in there.”
The Aggies also have junior Josh Ritchart, a 6-9 sharpshooter who was named to the 2012-13 College Madness Big West Men’s Basketball Preseason All-Conference second team after leading UCD in scoring last season, and versatile senior Ryan Howley.
Senior Paolo Mancasola and junior Ryan Sypkens will join Hawkins in the backcourt. Sypkens was leading the team in scoring in 2011 before suffering a season-ending injury and should fill the hole in the starting lineup left by the graduation of Eddie Miller, the Aggies’ second-leading scorer last year.
Add in sixth man Tyler Les, the coach’s son who was ranked 35th on CBSSports.com’s list of the top 50 shooters in college basketball, and it becomes apparent that the Aggies have a much deeper and more talented roster this season..
In fact, with Hawkins, Sypkens, Tyler Les, Ritchart and others all vying for shots, UCD might even have problem keep everyone happy and involved. But, according to coach Les, that shouldn’t be a problem.
“It’s really been an (offense of) equal opportunity,” he said. “We have a lot of movement, both player movement and ball movement, in our offense. I noticed guys giving up good shots to get great shots (against Menlo).
Jim Les attributed the players’ unselfish play to their closeness as a group, something that undoubtedly was strengthened during their 10-day trip to Europe this the summer and was apparent on Wednesday night against Menlo. The team huddled up around Adenrele for a loud pregame hype session — much to the delight of the fans in attendance.
“This is a group that likes each other,” Les said. “They like to compete. They like to play. There’s an energy and enthusiasm about them.”
Against Menlo, the team featured a starting line-up of Adenrele, Howley, Sypkens, Hawkins and Mancasola. However, Ritchart, who is recovering from a minor injury and came off the bench in that game, could reprise his starting role at some point in the season.
Defensively, Les expects to use a mixture of man and zone in hopes that the team will be able to get stops and rebounds and attack the basket in transition. While UCD has bolstered its depth down low and should be better equipped to score in half-court situations than it was last season, its speed is still its greatest strength. With the speedy Hawkins joining the likes of Tyler Les, Mancasola and Sypkens, the Aggies should be deadly on fast breaks.
“It’s much easier to run and play uptempo if you’re getting stops, but the defensive rebounding has to come first,” Jim Les said.
And with the Aggies rolling on all cylinders heading into the season opener, he is cautiously optimistic.
“We’re going to play awfully hard. And if we can throw in some execution on the defensive and offensive ends, home or away, we’re going to be a tough out.”
— Reach Will Bellamy at email@example.com