About a year ago, Jim Les had moments when he wondered if his friends were right. Maybe he was crazy.
He had taken over a UC Davis men's basketball program that appeared horribly overmatched at the Division I level. The athletic director job was vacant. One of his highly regarded recruits wasn't working out. And his Aggies were en route to a five-win season.
"It was awful," Les said the other day. "The worst year of my career. The only other experience I can compare it to was when I signed a couple of 10-day contracts with the Clippers (1989-90)."
Fast forward to this March, to the sprawling campus known more for its academics than athletics, and to the slice of history that transpires tonight on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. The Aggies yes, the Aggies played their way onto the network's late-season schedule and will host Long Beach State in what is expected to be a sold-out Pavilion.
In the evolving world of UCD sports, this is a big-time event and prime-time exposure, a means of introducing a young team that is 9-7 in the Big West Conference and 14-14 in all games. Among other things, the Aggies are led by sophomore guard Corey Hawkins, whose father (Hersey) is a longtime friend and former NBA teammate of Les'; feature one of the nation's premier three-point shooters in Ryan Sypkens; include four of the area's former high school stars; and have embraced a style that reflects the coach.
Les is aggressive, dynamic, precise, engaging. His Aggies are aggressive, dynamic, precise, entertaining. They compensate for a lack of athleticism with skill and execution, with a desire to make the men's basketball program relevant and occasionally break out the slippers and Cinderella and make it to the NCAA Tournament.
First, though, come the baby steps. And Les' friends are probably right. He probably is a little crazy. Last year (5-26) was insane. Les, who rebuilt the program at his alma mater, Bradley, before being replaced in 2011, badly underestimated the extent of the overhaul needed at Davis.
"The contentment with losing just drove me crazy," he said, with a grimace. "When you look at our team now, we added nine new players."
The 6-foot-2 Hawkins, who good-naturedly concedes that he isn't his father's equal as a shooter, leads the Big West with 20.3 points per game. Sypkens averages 14.4 points and converts 47 percent of his three-point attempts. J.T. Adenrele, another area recruit, follows with 12.8 points.
While the immediate goal is to finish at .500 or better for the first time at the D-I level with two regular-season games remaining, next year's projection is even more encouraging. The Aggies return almost an entire squad and will be strengthened by the presence of a healthy Darius Graham and the addition of transfer Avery Johnson.
In a casual chat over coffee in the student recreation center, Les cited several factors for the swift improvement, including a sympatico relationship with his new athletic director. Terry Tumey almost immediately identified a need to improve the level of financial and academic support, such as expanding tutorial programs. He also quickly endorsed Les' attempts to elevate his team's profile with everything from fundraisers, to pursuing a more visible and active presence within the community, in the region and on campus.
"Jim is very entrepreneurial," said Tumey, "and that's important in a start-up situation. This is a very challenging university. We have seen resources go in different directions. Do we have to keep up with the Joneses? No. But we are a national institution that has international appeal, and there needs to be a strong effort to build our athletic side."
"Right now, though," he added, with a chuckle, "we're sort of riding the wave."
Posters about tonight's ESPN2 telecast are tacked onto walls on campus and at area businesses. Tumey saw a cluster of students simultaneously riding bikes, playing musical instruments, and urging fans to pack the Pavilion. According to Les, recruits also are paying more attention.
"All of a sudden, people are taking calls and kids are texting back," he said. "That's a great feeling that we want to sustain. We're still working hard to change the misperception that athletic excellence means we're going to sacrifice academic standards. That will never happen at Davis. The high academic standards are selling points."
On a sprawling campus with an enrollment of approximately 33,000, and enough bicycles to cause minor gridlock at rush hour, the school has plenty of other elements to pitch. UCD ranked No. 1 in Sierra magazine's annual list of the greenest universities, for instance, and seventh among public universities in "The Best Colleges' Top 50" list for 2013. And for what it's worth, "Newsweek College Rankings 2011" rated Davis as the 10th-happiest campus.
Imagine if men's basketball continued its ascension and routinely lured ESPN to town?
"There are still too many people who don't know anything about UC Davis," Les added, "and we want to change that. The brighter the light shines, the more it benefits our school, both academics and athletics."
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208. Follow her on Twitter @Ailene_Voisin.