Jim Les remembers where he was, how he prepped his players, what transpired in the closing minutes, how he felt after his 13th-seeded Bradley Braves shocked No. 4 Kansas in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
Auburn Hills, Mich. Defend hard throughout and control the final minutes. His emotions spilling all over the court. He wanted to laugh and cry and scream, and before the party ended, he already was plotting for the next victim: Pittsburgh.
What Les didn’t realize until the late hours this past Wednesday, well after UC Davis slipped past North Carolina Central in the play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, was that the 11-year anniversary of his favorite March Madness moment – as a coach – was only days away. Actually, only one day away.
March 17, 2006. Friday’s date. Talk about madness.
“I think there should be a statue of limitations on that game,” Les said, laughing, after being told about the odd scheduling coincidence. “First of all, I have the utmost respect for Coach (Bill) Self. His consistency is off the charts. I watch a lot of video, watch his teams a lot and, unbeknownst to him, I steal from him. My college coach once told me, ‘never be guard poor.’ And the Jayhawks are guard rich. Frank Mason might be the best player in the country. Devonte’ Graham is terrific, and then they have Josh Jackson. None of them are one-dimensional.”
So, should Aggie fans start putting on their hats and pouring the green beer?
Not after looking at the numbers. In the history of NCAA Tournament, No. 16 seeded teams are 0-128 against their top-seeded opponent. That little nugget alone has most of the basketball world looking at the upcoming Midwest Region matchup and dismissing the Aggies as nothing more than slabs of Kansas City beef. Then there are the other factors, among them that the Jayhawks are ranked third in the two major polls, are coming off only their fourth loss of the season (against TCU in the conference quarterfinals), and feature two potential NBA stars (Jackson and Mason) in their starting lineup.
Mason leads the Big 12 in scoring (20.8 points per game) and 3-point percentage (.487), and is the first player in Jayhawks history to average 20 or more points and five assists.
But, hey, Tim Tebow scratched out a pair of hits and made a diving catch Wednesday. All sports can be strange and unpredictable. Realistically, though, there are two likely scenarios: Either the Aggies shock the world and slay the giant, or they get chased back to the farm in Northern California and catch up on their studies while Les shifts into recruiting mode.
Keep it close and compete, and let’s see what happens. Once the ball goes up, seedings and ratings don’t matter.
Jim Les, UC Davis men’s basketball coach
Senior starters Darius Graham, Brynton Lemar, Lawrence White and J.T. Adenrele will earn degrees in upcoming weeks, with Adenrele’s six-year adventure yet another of this season’s endearing Aggies factoids. The Roseville native sat out two seasons with torn anterior cruciate ligaments in each knee and, on several occasions, had to talk himself out of quitting the team.
The parents of several Aggies have become friends. Long after their sons boarded the flight to Tulsa late Wednesday, the parents of Adenrele, Graham and Lemar sat in the hotel lobby restaurant eating dinner and talking about the good times. None of them want this to end. White, whose parents were unable to make the trip, hurried to a T-shirt stand in the University of Dayton Arena late Wednesday to purchase several souvenirs.
“It’s going to happen eventually,” Aggies junior Chima Moneke said, referring to the 128 16th-seed first-round eliminations. “That’s how I look at it. We all can play at this level. If we play the way we’ve been playing the past few weeks, then we definitely can do that.”
The Jayhawks’ perennial success notwithstanding, several players have been involved or questioned regarding off-court incidents, among them allegations of domestic violence, damaging the car of a female basketball player and possession of drug paraphernalia found during an inquiry into the alleged rape of a 16-year-old in a campus dorm.
Self’s reputation for running a clean program most certainly is tarnished. The 2017 Naismith Hall of Fame finalist has been criticized both nationally and in editorials in the Kansas City Star for a lack of oversight and failing to address the domestic violence issues more forcefully.
Since Les doesn’t have any of those problems to worry about, his immediate concern is coming up with another of those schemes that shocks the world. And rather than poach from Self, this time he plans to steal from his own portfolio: these Aggies remind him of those Braves in some respects.
“It (Bradley) was a team that had no fear,” he recalled. “They were a veteran group, like we are now, and great competitors. And again, very good defensively. I remember watching tapes of the Jayhawks before the game, and nobody was really getting after them. I told our kids we’re going to lay it out there, challenge them. Keep it close and compete, and let’s see what happens. Once the ball goes up, seedings and ratings don’t matter. We went in there very loose and relaxed, and the pressure was all on them.”
Eleven years to the day, the pressure again is all on Kansas. And given their recent late-game heroics, it would be foolish to ignore the Aggies. Les received close to 160 texts after Wednesday’s victory from coaching colleagues, friends and relatives, former players and teammates, including his former Bradley backcourt partner Hersey Hawkins and his son, Corey, the high-scoring guard who led the Aggies to the Big West title two seasons ago.
“People were sending me pictures of fans sitting in bars, watching the game,” Les said. “It’s all been pretty exciting. We want to keep it going.”