It was early August.
The UC Davis men’s basketball team was in the throes of conditioning. After improving nine games to a 14-18 overall record in 2012-13, Aggie Nation was licking its chops at the thought of this lineup:
* Corey Hawkins, G, 20.3 ppg, first team All-Big West, conference Newcomer of the Year.
* Ryan Sypkens, G, one of the nation’s best long-range shooters.
* Tyler Les, G, a 44 percent dead-eye from beyond the arc, third on the team in assists, relentless in the back court.
* J.T. Adenrele, F, 12.6 ppg, six rebounds an outing, a defensive plus.
* Josh Ritchart, F, emerging and versatile — 7.8 ppg and good numbers in the paint and outside.
First came news that Adenrele, a junior from Roseville, suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.
Then, third-year UCD coach Jim Les announced that his senior-to-be son Tyler would redshirt this season: “Good move for the team … better for Tyler at this point,” said Dad.
A couple of games after being named Big West Conference Player of the Week, Ritchart went out with a leg injury. Although hurt in a Nov. 15 loss at Utah, the four-year veteran played five more games. He hasn’t been seen on the court since Dec. 2 at Seattle.
Last week in practice, Brynton Lemar — a freshman backcourt whiz who had been in the starting lineup — went down with a knee sprain.
Les says Lemar is responding well to treatment and should be back soon. Ritchart is listed as “day-to-day” by the coach.
Now, struggling at 5-10, the Aggies open Big West play Thursday at Cal State Northridge — and it’s anybody’s guess where short-handed UCD figures in the mix.
After being picked by California media (back in October) to finish fifth in conference, one thing seems probable — the locals will be hard-pressed to get a good seed in the league’s year-end tournament.
As for a ticket to the Big Dance? That would be a national story.
But Les thinks his guys can improve, be at least pesky, dare he say a conference contender?
“To be competitive (it will come down to) our overall defensive execution, our focus at that end of the floor,” says the former NBA player and ex-Bradley coach.
“I’m concerned about our rebounding numbers, but to me it’s part and parcel to the defense. Defense is about positioning, being the aggressor, making teams shoot the ball where we want them to shoot the ball. (It) puts you in a better position to rebound the ball.”
Once UCD gets some stops, it can enhance its transition game.
Les, who has seen his charges’ woeful early-season shooting numbers rise to 44 percent overall, says the Aggies’ best days on offense remain ahead.
“I think we’re a very good transition team,” Les points out, adding: “We’re a much better offensive shooting team than we’ve seen.”
With Pacific off to the West Coast Conference, the Big West has nine teams.
Four of those squads — UC Irvine, Long Beach State, Hawaii and UC Santa Barbara — look to be locked and loaded.
Les pointed to UCSB with star Alan Williams and Long Beach as the teams to beat — but allows that UCI, with its height, may be another challenge.
Folks will know a lot more after this weekend.
Here’s a capsule look at each Big West team:
UC Davis (5-10) — If the Aggies can’t play much-improved defense, it could be a long, long rest of the season.
Hawkins remains Hawkins. The 2013 league scoring champ is averaging 17.1 ppg. After an ice-cold start, Sypkens (11.5) is warming up and back in the starting lineup.
Three freshmen — swingman Georgi Funtarov and guards Lemar and Darius Graham — are making impacts.
Avery Johnson, Iggy Nujic and Clint Bozner are the contributors who UCD will need to add depth to these height-challenged Aggies.
Cal Poly (4-9) — The Mustangs’ 6-foot-7 forward Chris Eversley earned all-conference honors as a junior and is expected to do so again this winter. He’s averaging 14 points and seven rebounds a game.
On the wing, he gets help from Dave Nwaba (11.5 ppg and 4.5 rebounds), and Rio Americano grad Kyle Odster has been coming on (9.3 ppg) at guard.
Cal Poly was picked to finish third this year after an 18-14 season in 2012-13.
Cal State Fullerton (5-9) — Senior All-Big West guard Michael Williams returns. The Van Nuys native hasn’t slowed with his 15.2 average and harassing defense.
Northeastern University transfer Alex Harris (a Richmond product) is hitting for 12 a night and sophomore guard Jarden Brandon was coming on before an ankle injury has him listed as day-to-day.
Like the Aggies, the Titans are coming off a 14-18 season.
Cal State Northridge (8-7) — Stephen Hicks, a 6-6 guard, is going to be a difficult matchup for anybody.
The third-year performer has taken over with 17.6 points a game and 7.4 rebounds. Add to the equation all-league honorable mention Josh Greene (14.8 ppg) and forward Stephen Maxwell, a 6-7 junior who is scoring at a 16.5 clip and controlling the boards (8.6 rpg), and the Matadors could be the Big West surprise package.
The Aggies will find out Thursday.
Hawaii (11-3) — Averaging 82 points a game, these Rainbow Warriors might find a pot of gold at the conference tournament in Anaheim come March.
Hawaii is led by first-team Big West player Christian Standhardinger, as the 6-8 German-born forward is scoring 17.8 points on average and collected 7.4 rebounds every time out.
Coach Gib Arnold likes to stick with his starting five as long as possible — and why not? The five guys — Standhardinger, Garrett Nevels (13.6), Isaac Fotu (13.5), Brandon Spearman (11.0) and Keith Shamburger — are all getting it done.
Hawaii has won nine of its last 10 with its only losses coming to New Mexico State, No. 21 Missouri and Boise State — teams with a combined 35-9 record.
Long Beach State (4-10) — Don’t turn your back on the 49ers.
Half of their losses were to No. 1 Arizona, Michigan, Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina State and Washington.
If it’s not enough firepower to return Big West first-teamer Mike Caffey (16.9 ppg) and West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings (11.2 ppg, 7.9 ppg), coach Don Monson now has former UCLA Bruin Tyler Lamb on board.
Since becoming eligible four games ago, the 6-5 guard Lamb (by way of Mater Dei High) is averaging 20.8 points. In those contests, Long Beach is 3-1.
Remember too, the 49ers are the league’s defending regular-season champs.
UC Irvine (9-7) — Just try getting to the basket when the preseason Big West favorites go big.
Get this …
UCI starts 7-foot-6, 290-pound freshman Mamadou Ndiaye at center. It can bring in 7-2 Ioannis Dimakofoulous and 7-0 Conor Clifford for yucks.
But with Big West Defensive Player of the Year Will Davis II (a preseason all-league choice) Luice Nelson, Chris McNealy and Alex Young on the roster, the Anteaters sport a balanced starting five that averages between 9.1 and 12.5 ppg.
Senegal-born Ndiaye already has 49 blocks.
UC Riverside (5-9) — Interim coach Dennis Cutts was a last-minute replacement for Jim Wooldridge after Wooldridge became the Highlanders’ athletic director in June.
Now, Cutts has to figure out how to get some spring in his team’s step as pedestrian UCR falls back on forwards Taylor Johns (12.4 ppg) and Chris Patton (12.8).
Johns is 6-7 and Patton 6-10, so the Highlanders will have some authority in the paint, but after that, who knows?
UCR was 6-25 last season and wouldn’t have made the postseason anyway, suffering from an Academic Progress Rate (APR) penalty.
UC Santa Barbara (9-4) — The Gauchos will go as far as the brilliant Alan Williams will take them.
Williams is averaging a double-double nightly. His 23.5 points per game lead the conference, as do his 10.7 rebounds a night. The 6-7, 275-pound Phoenix transplant led UCSB past Cal, 72-65 on Dec. 6 in Maui. Earlier in the week, the Bears had hammered Big West favorite UCI, 73-56.
While Williams is the key, his supporting cast isn’t shabby.
Kyle Boswell (12.5 ppg) has worked himself into the starting lineup, where another 7-footer, Zalmico Harmon dwells. UCSB works off Harmon frequently, as evidenced by his five-assist average.
Notes: On Saturday, the Aggies are at Long Beach for a 4 p.m. tipoff. … Adenrele (a 2011 Oakmont High grad) is doing well in his rehabilitation and will be back for his junior season next fall. … Without Adenrele and Ritchart, the paint at Hamilton Court has been turned over to a rotation of Nujic, Funtarov and Bozner. Les says he’s pleased with how it’s playing out — although more defensive-end rebounding wouldn’t hurt. … Beginning Jan. 16 against UC Riverside, UCD gets three straight home games, including Fullerton (Jan. 18) and Hawaii (Jan. 23).
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.