An energy-infused UC Davis men’s basketball team is taking Aggies fans on a history-making ride so far this season.
UCD is 5-0 entering Wednesday’s nonconference game against visiting San Jose State, its best start in 62 years. A win over the Spartans (1-6) would give the Aggies their best men’s basketball start since 1912, when most opponents were high school and club teams.
Among this season’s victories are a 77-70 overtime thriller – highlighted by senior guard Tyler Les’ 25-foot tying three-pointer at the buzzer in regulation – against Utah State last Wednesday at the Pavilion. The Aggies also have won hard-fought road games against Eastern Illinois (63-61 on Nov. 20) and Furman (58-55 on Nov. 22).
UCD had a much easier time Saturday, beating visiting Utah Valley 64-43. The Aggies led by 24 points with nearly seven minutes left in the first half and were never challenged. They limited Utah Valley to 29 percent shooting while countering with 52 percent shooting and 36 points in the paint.
It’s pretty heady stuff for a team that last season won nine games and finished last in the Big West Conference, was decimated by injuries and defections and dominated physically and emotionally by many opponents.
This season’s Aggies are bigger, stronger, deeper and steeled mentally by the motivational musings of “The Energy Bus,” a book by Jon Gordon the players and coaches have taken to heart.
“We tell them all the time this is their program, their bus,” said UCD coach Jim Les, the former Kings guard.
As a team-building exercise before the season, Les dispersed his players in uniform throughout Davis, where they were picked up by a campus bus. Before boarding, each player had to recite one of the book’s 10 rules “for the ride of your life.”
“By the end of it, the thing was rocking,” Les said of the ride back to campus. “We pulled up at the Pavilion, and we took a team picture with the bus.”
At practices and games, the players collectively touch a locker room team poster of the players, coaches and staff posing in front of the bus with nine motivational words as “family,” “mentally tough” and “persistent” superimposed.
While the concept may seem trite to outsiders, sophomore starting point guard Darius Graham said the players are believers.
“Once we read the book and started to put the words into practice, there’s nothing corny about it,” said Graham, a former Sacramento High School standout.
“It’s a metaphor,” added senior guard and defensive stopper Avery Johnson. “Everyone is on the same page. Everyone is pushing for one another, motivating each other. It’s a collective energy.”
Junior J.T. Adenrele, a powerful 6-foot-7 forward who played at Oakmont High, watched the Aggies be bullied by other teams while rehabilitating an ACL injury last season.
“It’s surreal,” said Adenrele, who leads the Aggies in rebounding (6.8) and is fourth in scoring (9.0). “I didn’t think we’d make this drastic of a change. The attitude has changed tremendously from last year. ... The energy we have now is through the roof.”
With Adenrele and 6-9 senior forward and No. 2 scorer Josh Ritchart (Forest Lake Christian) back after medical redshirts and the addition of 6-10 Neal Monson and 6-6 Josh Fox, both community college transfers, the Aggies have a defensive presence they lacked last season.
UCD ranks 13th nationally in scoring defense at 54.2 points per game after finishing 326th last season (77.7).
“Josh and J.T. are pretty good post players, and with Neal and Josh Fox coming off the bench, we don’t lose a lot in terms of energy and execution,” Jim Les said. “And if teams sag on us inside or double down, we can still beat you with the three ball.”
Senior Corey Hawkins still is the Aggies’ go-to player (17.8 points, 52 percent from three-point range), just as he was as a sophomore in leading the Big West in scoring (20.3 points) and as a junior when he was second (18.0 points), despite constant double and triple teams.
Hawkins, a 6-3 guard, had 18 points against Utah Valley, and he was the Big West Conference Player of the Week after averaging 24.5 points against Eastern Illinois and Furman. And even thought he was held to 10 points against Utah State, the Aggies prevailed.
“They were running two and three guys at him, and Corey made the right plays,” Jim Les said Saturday. “He didn’t try to overdo it. In the past, I’m not sure we could win without Corey having a big (scoring) night. We proved against Utah State he doesn’t have to have a big night.
“When people look at that, they have to go back to playing us normal, and then he explodes like he did tonight.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.
UC DAVIS VS. SAN JOSE STATE
▪ Where: The Pavilion
▪ Time: 7 p.m.▪ Radio: 105.5