After Darius Graham made a late critical three-point basket that helped UC Davis defeat UC Riverside 61-59 and claim the program’s first Big West Conference men’s basketball title last March, a flood of emotions overtook the Aggies’ point guard as he celebrated with teammates, students and fans on the Pavilion floor.
Graham thought back to when he was being recruited out of Sacramento High School by UCD coach Jim Les, then in his first year. Graham rolled over in his mind the siren words the former NBA player used to persuade him to stay close to home and play for a college basketball program with a foundering reputation.
“Through that whirlwind of emotions I kept thinking that the journey is better than the outcome,” Graham said. “From when coach Les was recruiting me to that moment, I kept thinking about what coach said back then: We could establish a culture; we could be pioneers. Me being a Sacramento guy and coach Les’ first recruit, it felt real good to finally be a part of that.”
The Aggies had endured 10 consecutive losing campaigns before last season.
Graham, now a redshirt junior, experienced the past two losing seasons before helping the Aggies make the breakthrough. In addition to the Big West title, there was the 25-7 overall record and 14-0 mark at home, including thrilling nationally televised overtime wins over Long Beach State and Cal Poly. Les was named the Big West Coach of the Year, and the Aggies made the program’s first trip to the National Invitation Tournament.
So as UCD embarks on a new season, Graham and Les say the culture of success established by last year’s team will continue. They believe 2014-15 will not be an anomaly. This despite graduating four key fifth-year players, including Big West Conference Player of the Year Corey Hawkins. This despite possibly losing the services of senior power forward J.T. Adenrele (Oakmont High School) to a summer knee injury.
“I have the same expectations that when February and March come around, we will be in the hunt with the upper echelon of teams in the Big West,” Les said. “I don’t think we are one-year wonders. We’re not a flash in the pan.”
“I think the most important thing we did last season was to build a winning culture,” Graham said. “We followed our senior leaders, watched how they handled themselves day in and day out and worked hard. Now as the veterans, we’re showing the new guys how we do things. This is what winning teams do.”
Les believes that Graham and senior forward Josh Fox will be key players who step in for the departed Hawkins, forward Josh Ritchart (Forest Lake Christian) and guards Tyler Les and Avery Johnson.
“Darius got overshadowed, because of the four fifth-year seniors we had, three were guards,” Les said. “But he had some big moments for us. He’s the perfect guy to be our quarterback because of his work ethic, leadership skills and character. From the start to finish so far this season, he has been our best performer day to day.”
While the 5-foot-10 Graham averaged a only 4.3 points, he led the team in assists (3.2) and was No. 7 in the conference in assists-to-turnover ratio.
“I remember asking guys like Tyler and Corey for advice and tips, and now I’m that guy,” Graham said. “I feel fortunate that I played with a lot of great players last year, and I’m doing the same again this year. I feel my main role is to make the best decisions to help the team.”
Fox was third in team scoring at 9.0 points a game and second in rebounding at 4.1 and was named the Big West Conference Sixth Man of the Year.
“Along with Darius, Josh has been one of our top performers day in and day out,” Les said of the imposing 6-7, 220-pound Fox, who played previously at UC Riverside and City College of San Francisco. “He’s been a force for us. He sets a physical tone with his defense and rebounding. He’s versatile on the offensive end, and we can use him in a variety of ways.”
Other UCD returning players include 6-4 guard Brynton Lemar, 6-10 center Neal Monson and 6-8 forward Georgi Funtarov, all juniors. Monson and Lemar averaged 14.4 and 13.6 minutes, respectively. Funtarov played only token minutes last season after averaging 24.2 minutes as a freshman when Ritchart and Adenrele were sidelined by injuries.
Among the newcomers expected to be in the rotation are 6-10 sophomore center-forward Nolan Berry, 6-4 junior community college transfer Lawrence White and 6-3 freshman guard Siler Schneider, a former Kansas high school state Player of the Year. Community college transfer Chima Moneke and freshmen Garrison Goode, Joe Mooney and Rogers Printup are among the other new faces.
Berry could be a big-time talent. He played one season at Butler before transferring to UCD and sitting out last season.
“Nolan is one of my favorites,” Graham said. “He can pop from outside, and he handles the ball real well. He’s a great passer and a very unselfish guy. I’m real excited about his game.”
Graham is excited for the season to finally get under way after 30 grueling practices. The Aggies open a three-game homestand Friday against North Dakota State, part of a doubleheader with the Aggies women’s team that plays No. 16 Stanford in the nightcap. The UCD men will unveil their Big West title banner in a pregame ceremony.
North Dakota State reached the NCAA Tournament last season as a No. 15 seed and lost 86-76 to No. 7 Gonzaga. The two-time defending Summit League champions have won 73 games over the past three years and have four starters returning.
So the Aggies will be challenged as they try to extend the NCAA’s 14th-longest home-court winning streak (14 games).
“Our program goal is to win every game at home,” Graham said. “If we play good, hard basketball, I think the outcome will show for itself.”
FIVE THINGS ABOUT THE AGGIES
While UCD coach Jim Les is confident the Aggies will be among the top teams in the Big West Conference this season, the media did not agree in their preseason poll. The Aggies were picked to finish seventh with 79 points. Defending Big West tourney champion UC Irvine placed first with 221 points and 20 first-place votes. UC Santa Barbara was picked second, Long Beach State third, Cal State Northridge fourth, Hawaii fifth and Cal Poly sixth. Les noted that the Aggies also were picked to finish seventh last season.
Les is uncertain whether 6-foot-7 senior forward J.T. Adenrele will be able to rejoin the Aggies this season after he hurt his right knee playing pickup basketball. Adenrele missed the 2013-14 season with a left knee injury, though he received a medical redshirt. “I don’t know J.T.’s status,” Les said. “I’m really frustrated for him. But he’s working hard in the classroom and in the training room. He’s also doing really well in mentoring from the sidelines.”
The Aggies have two community college transfers this season, one who will play and the other who likely will redshirt for a season. Les said guard Lawrence White from Antelope Valley College will take over the defensive stopper role that Avery Johnson played last season. “He’s got good size (6-4) at the wing and fits our system in that he can shoot threes and get to the basket,” Les said. Les expects to redshirt Chima Moneke, a 6-6 forward from Australia by way of Northeast Community College in Nebraska.
Freshman guard Rogers Printup, who is partially deaf, was the youngest player this summer on the USA National Deaf Men’s Basketball Team that won the silver medal in the World Deaf Basketball Championships in Taiwan. “I learned how to make smart decisions, stay a step ahead of what is taking place on the court and how to play a more physical style of basketball – things that will help me become a better player when I face Division I competition,” said Printup, who played at Orange Lutheran High School in Southern California.
Josh Ritchart is the latest UCD player to play professionally overseas. The 6-9 forward and All-Big West Conference second-team selection last season is playing in Japan. Former teammate Ryan Sypkens is playing on a different team in the same league. Mark Payne is playing in France and Paolo Mancasola in Italy. Corey Hawkins of the Miami Heat is playing in the NBA Development League with the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
UC Davis men at a glance
North Dakota State
at Sacramento State
at Utah Valley
at Saint Mary’s
at San Diego
at Boise State
at UC Irvine*
at Long Beach State*
at UC Riverside*
UC Santa Barbara*
Long Beach State*
at Cal Poly*
at UC Santa Barbara*
Big West Tournament
*Big West Conference game