On Saturday, the Davis community will experience again what basketball madness is like in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Lawrence, Kan.; Bloomington, Ind.; and Lexington, Ky.
A sellout crowd of more than 5,600 is expected at the Pavilion for the 5 p.m. Big West Conference men’s basketball game between UC Davis and first-place UC Santa Barbara,which will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
Last year, in a game also broadcast on ESPN2, conference regular-season champion Long Beach State held off the Aggies 77-76 in front of a raucous full house at the Pavilion. It was the first Aggies home game televised nationally. Corey Hawkins scored a game-high 34 points and Ryan Howley’s last-second baseline jumper rimmed out as the Aggies nearly pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the Big West season.
“The atmosphere was electrifying and the crowd as vocal and vociferous as you’d see at some of the bigger college arenas in the West,” Sacramento-based basketball analyst Bill Herenda said. “You had one of the best scorers in the country, Corey Hawkins, going against one of the conference’s upper-echelon teams in a game that embodied how unpredictable and entertaining that conference is.”
Herenda, who worked that night as a UC Davis radio analyst, will do color for ESPN on Saturday – just not in Davis. Herenda has been assigned to the Cal Poly at UC Irvine men’s game later that night on ESPNU.
The two games are among five Big West regular-season games that will be televised nationally as part of a package that includes a number of live-streamed games plus broadcast of the Big West tournament’s men’s semifinals and final March 14 and 15 at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
Although UC Davis is struggling this season – 8-19 overall and 3-9 in the conference – Herenda thinks the team’s inspiring performance against talented Long Beach State and the atmosphere at the Pavilion were influential in ESPN returning to Davis.
“The (Pavilion) is one of the best facilities in the Big West, and it shows really well on television,” Herenda said.
UC Davis coach Jim Les, who played in the NBA, coached at Bradley, his alma mater, and worked as a big-time college assistant, said last year’s game was a huge marketing boost for the program and the school.
“I’ve coached in a lot of places, including Duke, Michigan State – we had a great fan following in Peoria (Ill.) at Bradley – and the atmosphere we had that night took a backseat to none of those venues,” Les said.
Les noticed an immediate difference when recruiting.
“It was amazing how many kids knew about us,” Les said. “In the past, we had to go into an elongated introduction: Where we’re at, who we were and what we were doing. We were able to cut to the chase with a lot of kids. They’d say, ‘We saw your game against Long Beach State.’ ”
While players at bigger programs take being on TV almost for granted, Hawkins said he and his teammates relish the opportunity even more because it’s also a rare chance to play in front of a large crowd of students and fans.
“It’s huge,” Hawkins said. “The energy that was in the arena that night was the best it’s ever been. When people come out to support the home team, it gives you a little extra edge. It’s something to play for. So, hopefully, we get that kind of crowd again.”
Last year’s game was the largest since 5,776 watched the Aggies lose to Oregon State in 2007, two years before the Pavilion was renovated and the capacity downsized to 5,670 to accommodate wider aisles and a new seating system. The largest crowd this season was 2,465 for the Causeway Cup game Nov. 26 against Sacramento State.
Herenda said ESPN2 will have no shortage of story lines for Saturday’s game, starting with two of the best players in the conference in Hawkins, a 6-foot-3 junior guard, and UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams, a 6-7, 275-pound junior center.
Hawkins is the son of Hersey Hawkins, who played 12 years in the NBA and was the National College Player of the Year in 1988 at Bradley after averaging 36.3 points to lead the nation in scoring.
Corey Hawkins, the Big West Newcomer of the Year last season after transferring from Arizona State, is averaging 18.9 points, second in the Big West, and is the leader of an Aggies team that has lost starting forwards J.T. Adenrele and Josh Ritchart to injuries and another big man, 6-8 junior Iggy Nujic, who recently left the team.
Williams, an NBA prospect, averages a conference-leading 22.5 points and 12 rebounds, best in NCAA Division I. Williams, the front-runner for Big West Player of the Year, had 27 points and 20 rebounds in an 82-67 win over the Aggies on Feb. 1 in Santa Barbara. The Gauchos are 18-7 and 9-3 in the conference.
Hawkins expects a more competitive game this time in the Aggies’ final home game of the season.
“Last year when we played Long Beach, we were definite underdogs,” Hawkins said. “I think people were pleasantly surprised we could compete against one of the top teams in college. I think that’s one reason ESPN decided to come back.
“You want to take advantage of these opportunities. This gives our school exposure and something for the campus and community to talk about. So, hopefully, this time we can come out with a W.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.