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Andy Furillo: UC Davis men’s basketball team handles adversity

“I can’t ask for more from this group – they’re giving it to me every day,” said UCD head coach Jim Les of his team.
“I can’t ask for more from this group – they’re giving it to me every day,” said UCD head coach Jim Les of his team.

In the upper deck of the Pavilion, little kids laughed and yelled in the jump house where the roll-out bleachers at UC Davis basketball games had been pushed back. Dads flung rubber footballs to their sons and daughters in the spaces where last year they rolled out the seats to accommodate the thousands of fans who came out to see the Aggies win the regular-season championship of the Big West Conference.

These days, there’s no need for the rollouts. The Aggies reside in the middle of the Big West pack at 10-14. Last season’s conference MVP, Corey Hawkins, plays D-League ball in Boise, Idaho, and the Aggies have fallen off Broadway. It hurt at times to watch them on Saturday night, especially in the first half, when they committed 15 turnovers and scored only 16 points in a 57-48 loss to Long Beach State.

But in their struggles Saturday night and on the season, the Aggies have kept their soul. Their coach, Jim Les, said they have maintained their character and integrity and respect for the game. All the time they give him their all, and Les said that makes this year’s 10-14 every bit as fun as last year’s 25-7.

Maybe these guys won’t make it to the end, but they are building the bridge to the future by maintaining the program’s standards of hard work and enthusiasm. They’re upholding the athletic-academic ideal in which winning is important but secondary to the nurturing and development of the people the program produces.

“I can’t ask for more from this group – they’re giving it to me every day,” Les said.

Everywhere they go, Les said, his Aggies make a statement, about themselves and their school.

10-14 UCD’s record this season

“I can’t tell you,” he said, “ the number of emails and comments I get from flight attendants, and restaurant workers, and hotel people who talk about, ‘Hey, we have a number of teams on these flights, in this restaurant, and this hotel, and your guys are the most polite, the most energetic, the most thankful and with the most gratitude,’ for whatever it is that’s being done.”

Les, of course, wants to win championships, beyond the regular-season title he pulled down last year. But it’s probably unrealistic to see the Aggies doing much this season. The home losses to UC Santa Barbara on Thursday and Long Beach State on Saturday were two games UC Davis needed to win to establish itself as a Big West contender. The Aggies showed they can hang with the first-division teams with hard and tough defense but seem to lack the offensive firepower to make a title run.

Last season, UC Davis forward Josh Fox earned all-conference honorable mention and was named the Big West’s best sixth man. It’s been harder for him this season as the Aggies’ first man. Opponents mark him up to shut him down. Long Beach State stuffed him for only four points in the first 20 minutes Saturday night, until Fox figured it out in the second half and finished with 20. He’s averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds a game.

“We’re staying positive, but it’s tough right now,” Fox said. “We’ve got a lot of guys limping, but it’s not an excuse. We’ve got to fight harder at the end when it gets down to those winning times.”

Injuries have hurt the Aggies’ plans to make this more than a rebuilding season.

Forward J.T. Adenrele, lithe and physical, made all-Big West honorable mention three years ago. He tore up a knee last summer and hasn’t played all season. If he doesn’t make it back, it’ll be the second full UC Davis season he has missed.

25-7UCD’s record last season

Meanwhile, knee and hip problems have kept Nolan Berry, the big-man transfer from Butler, out of 14 games. Guard Brynton Lemar has missed four starts. Point guard Darius Graham has started every game, but he’s listed as hobbling-in-action.

Attrition has forced Les to lay heavy minutes on intriguing true freshman guard Siler Schneider. He’s the Aggies’ third-leading scorer at 9.8 points per game, but Schneider at times endures learning moments. Saturday night, he missed 14 of 16 shots and led the team with five turnovers. But he’s a shooter, so you have to think he forgot about Long Beach State by the dawn of Valentine’s Day.

With the upstairs bleachers tucked in at the Pavilion, Les understands that with a losing team in the false spring of February, “there are a lot of excuses to do other things on a Saturday afternoon at 5:30 when the weather is 70 degrees.”

The 10-14 record accurately reflects his team’s reality. But there is a deeper truth to the Aggies’ purpose, one in which energy and effort are givens and the classroom is a stopping place on the journey of life’s learning curve and not a burden to be avoided on your way to the money.

“It was easy last year to be a good teammate and coach, a positive influence, when things are going well,” Les said. “When you’re going through adversity, your character and integrity get tested, and this group has passed all those tests with flying colors.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo