College Sports

UC Davis looking forward to a healthy, improved men’s basketball season

Injuries hit the UC Davis men’s basketball team so hard last season that assistant coaches Kevin Nosek, Chris Davis and Kyle Vogt sometimes were pressed into duty so the Aggies could practice with 10 healthy bodies.

“We not only had player injuries, but we had a coach injury, too,” said head coach Jim Les. “Coach Vogt had to go in and get biceps surgery after the season, so even our coaching staff took some dings.”

But not Les, the former NBA point guard.

“I couldn’t be talked into it,” he said smiling. “I’ve seen too many ACL and Achilles’ injuries, and I’m a much better talker now than I am a walker.”

In all, UCD players combined to miss 97 games because of injuries.

The biggest losses were 6-foot-7 junior forward J.T. Adenrele (Oakmont High), who suffered a knee injury before the season began, and 6-9 forward Josh Ritchart (Forest Lake Christian), who saw his promising senior season (17.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game) come to an end after nine games with a stress fracture in his leg.

UCD’s patchwork lineup limped to a 9-22 overall record, and went 4-12 and finished last in the Big West Conference. The Aggies were the only team that failed to qualify for the eight-team Big West tournament, though they could still brag a little. During the season, they swept Cal Poly – the surprise Big West tournament champion and NCAA Tournament first-round winner.

“Last year, I’ll call it an asterisk,” Les said. “It’s one of those things that happens. I think there is a reason we went through what we went through. We were all able to grow individually as coaches and players, and now collectively we are going to be better for it.”

How much better?

“This will be the best Division I basketball team that UC Davis has seen,” Les said. “There is no doubt in my mind.”

Eleven of his 14 players have D-I experience.

Ritchart, who is closing in on 1,000 career points, and Adenrele, a strong shot blocker and rebounder, each earned medical redshirts and return stronger and wiser.

Senior Tyler Les, a chip off the old block when it comes to long-range shooting, also returns after redshirting last season.

Sophomores Darius Graham (Sac High), Georgi Funtarov and Brynton Lemar – who averaged between 24 and 26 minutes each – all earned valuable experience in playing more minutes than Les anticipated last season as either redshirt or true freshmen.

Les also found a couple of gems in senior guard Avery Johnson, the USF transfer who developed into a strong defender and key contributor, and junior Justin Dueck, an overachieving 6-9 forward who started 13 games.

All return along with centerpiece senior guard Corey Hawkins, a two-time All-Big West Conference selection who was third in the conference in scoring last season and first the season before. Hawkins, who set career and single-season Arizona high school scoring records, has scored 1,108 points in two seasons with the Aggies.

Hawkins averaged 18 points despite being the center of attention for most teams.

“They were running two and three guys at him last year,” Les said of Hawkins, an Arizona State transfer and son of former NBA player Hersey Hawkins. “But that helped him to become a better playmaker, better defender and better rebounder. His scoring numbers pop out at you, but he does so much more for us.”

The Aggie returnees are being bolstered by three sizable transfers: 6-7 junior forward Josh Fox (UC Riverside, City College of San Francisco) and 6-10 sophomores Neal Monson (Salt Lake City Community College) and Nolan Berry (Butler). Also joining them is promising freshman guard Isaiah Walton from Oberlin, Ohio.

Fox, Monson and perhaps Walton will contribute this season, but Berry will make his sizable presence felt in practice since he has to sit out 2014-15 as a transfer.

“I’m excited about this group,” Les said. “We’ve got a lot of different pieces. We’ve got depth at each position.”

More importantly, every player from Hawkins to Walton is being pushed in practice.

“Guys need to compete at every position,” Les said. “If you don’t, someone is going to pass you up and take your minutes. There is no better motivator as a coach than to have guys pushing each other to get better.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.