The UC Davis men’s basketball team has taken on a thousand guises this season — and worn even more expressions.
There have been some nights where the Aggies have looked capable of beating anyone with their torrents of 3-pointers and high-flying athleticism, and have swaggered off the court radiating confidence and optimism. And there have been others where they have looked sluggish and lost on defense, incapable of stepping up during crunch time. After those games, the players have been frustrated and shell-shocked.
Needless to say, this year has been an absolute roller coaster for UCD (14-16, 9-9 in Big West Conference play).
And now it’s about to reach its final destination.
The Aggies will get the chance to determine how the season is remembered when they travel to Anaheim this week for the conference tournament, which will once again be held at the Honda Center.
There, sixth-seeded UCD will kick off postseason play on Thursday with a quarterfinal elimination game against third-seeded Cal Poly.
Fittingly, the Aggies have channeled both their inner Dr. Jekyll and their inner Mr. Hyde against the Mustangs in the regular season. They beat Poly, 69-67, on a last-second shot by Corey Hawkins at The Pavilion in January, then got blown out, 68-53, in San Luis Obispo last month.
“I have a lot of respect for Cal Poly,” said UCD head coach Jim Les. “We had one game at our place that we won on a buzzer-beater and I thought they handled us pretty well at their place. We know we have our work cut out for us on Thursday. They are a solid (team), both offensively and defensively, and do not make many mistakes or beat themselves.”
There was one constant in both games — the play of Hawkins, a sophomore guard who was named to the All-Big West first team on Monday and also received the conference’s Newcomer of the Year award.
Hawkins (20.9 points per game) scored 15 points including the game-winner in the first game against Cal Poly, and had 16 points and seven rebounds in the rematch.
“The numbers (show) that he is an elite scorer, and does it in different ways,” Les said. “He can score in a variety of ways: from three, at the free-throw line, he has a great midrange game, can attack the basket and (score) with floaters. Corey can stretch opposing defenses during games and carry us on his shoulders.”
If UCD is to knock off Poly on Thursday — and make a run at a Big West tourney crown that comes with a berth in the NCAA Tournament — Hawkins, who led the conference in points, will have to light up the scoreboard as he has so often done this season.
The Aggies probably also will need strong complementary performances from the other two members of their big three, center J.T. Adenrele and guard Ryan Sypkens. Adenrele (12.7 points per game) and Sypkens (14.3 points) both received conference honorable mentions on Monday, and Sypkens has been among the nation’s leaders in 3-point field goal percentage (.468) and treys made per game (3.78).
But above all, UCD will have to do the two things they’ve struggled to do all season: rebound and defend consistently.
Those demons appeared to be in retreat in recent weeks, but flared up during Saturday’s loss to UC Irvine in the regular-season finale.
The Aggies surrendered 60 points in the second half alone and allowed the Anteaters to grab 20 offensive rebounds and convert them into 26 second-chance points. They squandered a 19-point lead and fell, 88-85, at The Pavilion.
After the game, a visibly frustrated Les made it clear that his guys were not going to cruise into the tournament:
“We’re going to have some energetic and intense practices leading up to Anaheim. I’m thinking about the defense and the rebounding.
“We’ve learned enough that being a team that’s going to try and outscore people is a recipe for disaster. We know we can do some things offensively. Our issues are on the defensive end. If this team puts an emphasis on defense and rebounding, they’ve got a chance to play with anybody. If we don’t, we’ve proven we can be pretty mediocre.”
Notes: UCD will be monitoring reserve forward Josh Ritchart heading into the tournament. Ritchart suffered what appeared to be an ankle injury in the finale. Les wasn’t sure about his status after the game. … Other first-round games on Thursday pit Big West regular-season champion Long Beach State against No. 8 Cal State Fullerton (6 p.m.), second-seeded Pacific against No. 7 UC Santa Barbara (noon) and No. 4 Irvine vs. fifth-seeded Hawaii at 8:30 p.m.
— Reach Will Bellamy at email@example.com