UC Davis' AJ John: 'If we play how we're capable of playing, you'll see us dancing'
The UC Davis men's basketball team followed up a historic, improbable appearance in the 2017 bracket with a solid 2018 season, but fell short of repeating the magic that took them to March Madness a year ago.
With an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament up for grabs, the Aggies entered this season's Big West Conference tournament as the No. 1 seed, but fell 55-52 to Cal State Fullerton in the semifinals. UCD blew a 13-point second-half lead in defeat.
The 2017-18 UCD squad (21-9, 12-4 in regular season) is, however, guaranteed a spot in the National Invitation Tournament. The seventh-seeded Aggies will face No. 2 Utah in the first round Wednesday in Salt Lake City.
The team has been without star forward, Chima Moneke, who has been suspended from the team since Feb. 3 after a rules violation during a road trip. The matter is still being investigated. Junior AJ Johns has performed well in taking over Moneke's place in the starting lineup. Moneke was the team's leading scorer before his suspension.
Here's a look back at the 2016-17 season, the best in Aggies history.
Hot start, but...
The Aggies bolted to an 8-2 start in conference play and ended the regular season with a perfect 11-0 record at home.
However, the Aggies wound up winning just five of their 14 road games and lost their last three regular-season contests away from the Pavilion, including a 79-49 blowout loss to regular-season champ UC Irvine in the finale.
They finished conference play 11-5, good for the No. 2 spot in the 2017 conference tournament.
Despite road troubles, UCD advanced to the championship game in Anaheim by downing Cal Poly 66-55 and edging Cal State Fullerton 66-64 in overtime. That set the stage for a nationally televised rematch against UC Irvine.
The Aggies prevailed 50-47 in a hard-fought defensive battle against the Anteaters. Fast-forward to 2018, and it was again those two teams squaring off to end the regular season. This time around, UCD came from behind in dramatic fashion thanks to clutch performances by AJ Johns and TJ Shorts III for a double-overtime win, snatching the Big West No. 1 seed from Irvine.
With last season's clincher, UCD won the Big West tournament title, securing a ticket to uncharted territory for a program that joined Division I in 2004 (postseason eligible since 2007-08).
The Aggies' breakthrough gained the attention of both Davis and the greater Sacramento area. The March Madness appearance alone, regardless of the outcome, attracted the attention of potential recruits in the region, as noted by The Bee's Ailene Voisin. Buzz stirred on social media. Local watch parties were quickly planned.
The Sacramento area's hype as March Madness 2017 advanced to the main bracket was compounded by the fact that Golden 1 Center was hosting first- and second-round games. This brought fans of teams like the Oregon Ducks and UCLA Bruins to the Sacramento Kings' new home.
An improbable win
UCD's first taste of March Madness came in the form of a First Four play-in game, with the winner destined for the No. 16 seed and the honor of losing to the Kansas Jayhawks two days later (a No. 16 seed has never upset a No. 1 seed in tournament history, a resounding 0-132).
The matchup, last March 15, pitted UCD against North Carolina Central, a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Naturally, it brought about a lot of new and interesting scenarios. Voisin documented a few of the humorous ones: coach Jim Les' wife joking after the game, "I can't breathe"; sports media struggling to pronounce the last name of Australian-born Moneke; and spectators in Dayton, Ohio, wondering where Davis was located.
The Aggies fought through nerves, the unknown and a near-six-minute scoring drought to defeat NC Central, 67-63. And for two days, they had an undefeated record in the NCAA Tournament.
An inevitable loss
The win set up the tall task of facing Kansas. Hype continued to build and more hard-core viewing parties were arranged, even as an Aggie loss was a statistical near-certainty.
On top of that, Kansas had the obvious geographical advantage. Jayhawks fans had just 230 miles separating their home university from Tulsa, Okla. Davis locals had 1,700 miles to trek.
Indeed, UCD was trounced by the top-seeded Jayhawks, 100-62. Moneke had a team-high 20 points and nine rebounds in defeat. Frank Mason III, now wearing purple with the Kings, led all scorers with 22 for Kansas.
Kansas made it to the Elite Eight, losing 74-60 to No. 3 seed Oregon. And the Aggies went home.
A hero's welcome
Les, Moneke, the team's then-senior leader Brynton Lemar and the rest of the Aggies flew home from Tulsa to Davis, where their strong showing and resilient efforts were celebrated.
Before that heroes' trip home, in the immediate aftermath of the loss to Kansas, Les emphasized his intent to stay with the team.
“I want to continue to grow what we’ve built here,” he said following the loss. “Davis is a special place.”
Back to 2018...
The growth Les spoke of seems to have continued so far in the 2017-18 season.
UCD improved slightly to a 12-5 Big West regular-season record and rode a five-game winning streak into the conference tournament. They also managed to go 7-3 with Moneke unavailable due to suspension, a testament to the team's depth.