Not much went according to plan.
When forward and All-Big West hopeful J.T. Adenrele went down with a knee injury before the season even started, a chain-reaction of adjustments began in the UC Davis men’s basketball program.
Forward Josh Ritchart would have to be more of an inside presence.
For the first nine games, that looked like it might work out — Ritchart was the team’s leading scorer and had just been named conference Player of the Week. The Aggies were finding themselves at 3-2 after Ritchart scored a career-high 35 points in a win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
But Ritchart felt pain in his leg. He had been rolled in a Nov. 11 loss at Utah and — despite the big outing — was suffering.
By December, Ritchart was on the bench, not to return (medically redshirted so he didn’t lose his senior eligibility).
UCD’s once-formidable inside duo of Adenrele and Ritchart was but a memory.
Major adjustments continued as three freshmen — Georgi Funtarov, Darius Graham and Brynton Lemar — were “thrown to the wolves,” as Aggie head coach Jim Les told The Enterprise in January.
With players learning on the court, the locals struggled — eventually finishing 9-22, missing the Big West Conference tourney with a 4-12 league mark.
What was a nine-game improvement in the win column the season before (from five wins to 14), became a setback this winter.
While there were those injury excuses, Les would have none of it …
“I was pleased with the steps forward we took last year. This year was a step backwards — and it’s on me,” the third-year Aggie mentor explained. “This was more of a life’s lesson than basketball. We were thrown a curveball … the unexpected happened.”
Les talked with each player last week at his UCD office.
“Dealing with a year of adversity … I’m pleased with the attitude of the guys,” Les said, hoping his players will put the year behind them. “Closure is a valuable lesson, (talking about) what it takes to deal with cards you were dealt and a season you didn’t expect.”
With Adenrele and Ritchart watching from the bench, the patchwork Aggies struggled on defense. And there was more lost playing time …
Lemar, the solid first-year guard from San Diego, would miss almost five weeks with a knee injury, and Australian wing Iggy Nujic walked away from basketball.
Standout Corey Hawkins became the point guard, Justin Dueck became a defensive inspiration and Clint Bozner was called on to be muscle in the paint.
With Graham, Lemar and Funtarov learning on the job, opponents zeroed in on stopping veterans Hawkins and sharpshooting senior Ryan Sypkens.
Still, both crashed through the 1,000-point barrier for their careers and Sypkens became the Big West’s top 3-point shotmaker of all time (315).
Sypkens’ 1,275 points put him just ahead of Dominic Calegari (2006-10) at No. 12 among the top Aggie scorers.
Sypkens’ 10 treys in a game is a school record and his 106 for a year is a new standard.
But defenses came hard after ex-Franklin High star Sypkens, whose 11.4 points a game were lower than expected.
“He is really talented. An elite-level shooter,” Les said. “It’s unfortunate that he had to deal with this during his senior year. Everything got magnified … we had to change who we were individually and collectively.
“I am appreciative of Ryan’s contributions — this season wasn’t for a lack of hard work or determination. What he has in the record books will be tough to beat.”
Meanwhile, Hawkins — last year’s top Big West scorer — was asked to be Atlas; to carry Aggie Nation on his shoulders.
Hawkins finished with an average of 18 points per game (down from 20.3 as a sophomore). He was banged around as opposing defenses threw everything at him.
“I thought it was a credit to him to be able to produce in the manner he did,” sad Les, the former Bradley coach and NBA player.
Hawkins was the team’s leading rebounder (135), second to Graham’s 93 assists with 89 of his own and sank 75 percent of his 210 free throws.
“Night in, night out, he was not only drawing teams’ best defender, they were running two or three guys at him. Still, we’d ask him to rebound and guard the other team’s best players,” added Les.
Hawkins was accorded second-team all-league honors. (He was Big West Newcomer of the Year and a first-team selection in 2012-13.)
“Second team, in my opinion, was not indicative of where he should have been,” Les continued. “But I understand. Coaches look at rewarding teams with winning records.”
And about those three freshmen forced into extensive action:
“I couldn’t be more pleased with those guys. We asked everybody to do more, but the game is physical and speeds up if you’re a freshman.
“I really believe things happen for a reason. Georgi, Brynton and Graham were thrown into situations that will pay dividends in off-season workouts … pay dividends especially for next year.”
With a week of finals followed by spring break, Les says his team is getting a rest from basketball. Adenrele and Ritchart are expected back in the fold — healthy and determined — and a new class of Aggies will be announced next month.
“Now it’s time to have everyone work on getting healthy, work throughout the offseason to get better and return with a vengeance next year,” Les concluded.
Notes: Les’ son Tyler redshirted this season and will return to the roster as an Aggie playmaker and long-range threat. … UCD already has a new recruit committed: Elyria High (Ohio) guard Isaiah Walton. The 6-foot-4 senior averaged 21.8 pgg for the 14-9 Pioneers this season. “As a staff, we couldn’t be more excited to have Isaiah join our basketball family,” Les said in November. “He is an explosive scorer who can make plays for himself, as well as others. Isaiah also has tremendous character and is a motivated student.”
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.