There isn’t anyone looking forward to the start of Big West Conference men’s basketball play more than UC Davis senior Josh Ritchart and junior J.T. Adenrele.
The two starting forwards were spectators throughout last year’s conference competition as the Aggies finished last in a disappointing nine-win season.
Adenrele, 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, missed the entire season with a left knee injury. Ritchart (6-9, 235) played in the first nine games before being sidelined by a right lower leg injury.
Both were given medical redshirts and both have come back bigger and stronger, two reasons why the 10-3 Aggies are off to their best start of the 10-year Division I era entering Wednesday’s conference opener against Cal State Northridge at the Pavilion.
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Ritchart is second in scoring (13.0 points), third in rebounding (4.6) and tops in blocked shots with nine while averaging 24 minutes. Adenrele is fourth in scoring (8.3) and second in rebounding (4.8) while averaging 21 minutes.
“It showed me a lot about their character by how they handled the major adversity of their injuries, and how they have come back,” UC Davis coach Jim Les said. “They’re better physically, better mentally, more aggressive and more well-rounded.”
Les said Ritchart is one reason the Aggies are playing better defense this season.
“Before his injury, Josh was seen as just a perimeter guy,” Les said. “Now he can go into the post; he’s a better rebounder. And even though he has put on more muscle, he’s moving better.”
Before his injury, Adenrele wasn’t considered much of an offensive threat beyond the key. But in a 78-41 win over Cal Maritime on Saturday, Adenrele made the second three-pointer of his three-year UCD career.
“He was able to work a lot on his jump shot, and now when he shoots a 15-footer and misses, I’m surprised,” Les said. “He also has more awareness of how disruptive he can be as a defender with his length and his athleticism.”
Senior guard Avery Johnson said the return of Ritchart and Adenrele makes the Aggies factors in what is expected to be a wide-open conference race.
“They’ve helped us out with their size, their energy, their experience,” Johnson said. “Josh offensively spreads the defense with his range, and J.T. is able to get us our rebounds, dunks.”
They used their time away from the court last season to build not only their bodies but improve their basketball IQs.
“We can see now how the time away has paid off,” Ritchart said. “We are able to read the game a little better.”
It also reinforced how much they love to play.
“What I missed the most last season was the adrenaline rush you get from playing – people screaming at me, people cheering me on,” said Adenrele, a former Oakmont High School standout. “When you are sitting on the bench, you don’t really get that. It’s a totally different experience.”
It helps that they are on a deep team that plays well together and has the potential to be one of UCD’s best.
“This is the best team chemistry I’ve ever been a part of,” said Ritchart, who played at Forest Lake Christian in Auburn. “There is no ego. We have one goal, and that’s to win.”
Adenrele isn’t surprised that UCD’s 10 wins are four more than any other Division I Aggies team entering conference play.
“We worked hard this summer, so we’re watching the fruits of our labor grow in front of us,” Adenrele said. “If we keep working, good things will happen. That’s just the vibe this whole team has now.”
This is a critical week for the Aggies.
After playing Northridge (4-11) – coached by former Kings player and coach Reggie Theus – the Aggies face perennial conference power Long Beach State (6-10) on Saturday in a nationally televised game (ESPNU) that is expected to pack the Pavilion.
Two years ago, Ritchart and Adenrele combined for eight points and five rebounds when Long Beach State beat the Aggies 77-76 in overtime in a game televised on ESPN2 at the sold-out Pavilion.
But last March they watched from the bench as the undermanned Aggies fell 67-54 to UC Santa Barbara in another ESPN2 game that drew an announced crowd of 5,227.
“When you see the Pavilion rocking like that, it was tough being on the sidelines,” said Ritchart, who has scored 1,136 points in his five seasons at UCD. “But it’s nice to get rewarded with another one, so we’re excited.”
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BIG WEST OPENER
Who: UC Davis vs. Cal State Northridge
Where: The Pavilion
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.