The Big West Conference no longer includes UNLV, or even New Mexico State, Utah State or Fresno State as it once did. It’s no longer playing the third game on Big Monday. Once a regular top 10-12 conference and even considered better than the Pac-10 for a brief time in the 1980s, it has slipped far, far outside the mainstream media eye, and not without good reason.
None of the above are acceptable excuses, but they help explain why one of the truly special stories of this college basketball season has been so ignored. A doormat since it joined NCAA Division I in the early 2000s with not so much as a winning season, UC Davis is putting together what could end up being the finest turnaround in Division I history.
Just 9-22 a year ago, the Aggies are on the verge of reversing that record-and then some. UC Davis is now 21-4 this season after its latest win last night, a 74-67 comeback victory over Hawaii that will go down as one of its sweetest wins of the year, but also could possibly be its most bittersweet.
The Aggies have been led all season by senior guard Corey Hawkins, the son of Bradley college star and NBA great Hersey Hawkins who averages 21.3 points per game, as well as sweet-shooting senior big man Josh Ritchart, the team’s second-leading scorer who shoots nearly 45% from three and picked up the slack when Hawkins missed four games earlier this month due to injury.
Both had off nights Saturday, but for different reasons. Hawkins was plagued by foul trouble and also shot 1 of 8, scoring just six points. Ritchart played just three minutes after injuring a knee in the game’s first minute and sitting the rest of the half, then returning to start the second half before going out.
It’s hard to imagine almost any team with just two players averaging in double figures coming back from a 10-point second half deficit when those two are contributing next to nothing, but UC Davis did, fighting back to tie the game and later rallying again by closing on a 19-6 run for the win. The reason: Tyler Les, son of coach Jim Les, scored 28 points, raining in nine three-pointers in a spectacular shooting display, while fellow senior Avery Johnson-less than a 6 ppg scorer on the season-tied his season high with 14 points.
The Aggies are now 11-1 in the Big West, and with a two-game lead over the nearest competition are closing in on their first-ever Big West title. They’re also doing it in a year when the league is actually having its best season in many years. Though the conference has been ravaged by injuries to some of its biggest stars-notably UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams and UC Irvine’s Mamadou Ndiaye-the Big West is still currently 12th in the RPI, which would be its best finish in 18 years.
Notice a theme among all the UC Davis players listed above: seniors. The Aggies have four fifth-year seniors. In fact, part of the reason for last year’s struggles was injuries to players like Ritchart and interior enforcer J.T. Adenrele and a chosen redshirt for Tyler Les, but last year’s depleted roster is now a deep, experienced team that is proving it can play through adversity.
The Aggies’ banner year could get another test on that last front, depending on a medical report. Ritchart will be re-evaluated after the swelling goes down in his knee, according to the Sacramento Bee. He is a unique weapon who can play inside and out, the type that can cause matchup problems in the postseason against bigger teams. The Aggies missed Hawkins for four games recently but didn’t miss a beat, going 4-0 without the likely Big West player of the year, but that’s not a scenario any team wants to repeat as the postseason nears.
One hopes that such a special year does not get cut short by injury. Towson set the D-I mark two years ago with a 17.5 game improvement, but UC Davis has a shot at that and more. An incredible story deserves a fitting end, and while an NCAA bid is no guarantee in what this year is still a one-bid league, the Aggies deserve the chance to see this to the end.
- Hoopville’s Phil Kasiecki has his review of Saturday’s action right here. Phil was also in Cambridge, Mass., where Harvard rallied from a second half deficit for a big 63-55 win over Princeton, a win even bigger as previous Ivy League co-leader Yale was surprised at home by Columbia 56-50.
- Great news as San Diego State forward Dwayne Polee returned to the court for the first time in two months, playing in the Aztecs’ 74-56 win over San Jose State. Polee collapsed on the court in a game in December, but played 13 minutes and scored three points on Saturday.
- Duke’s Jahlil Okafor missed the Blue Devils’ easy 78-56 win over Clemson on Saturday due to the ankle injury suffered in the previous game against North Carolina.
- Georgia got back J.J. Frazier on Saturday for its game against Alabama, an eventual 66-65 Bulldogs win. Frazier missed UGA’s previous game with concussion-like symptoms, but scored eight points last night.
- Michigan State and Illinois face off in an important Big Ten game, while Iowa can’t afford a loss at Nebraska in a very losable game for the Hawkeyes. Michigan also hosts Ohio State.
- Tulsa could really use a sweep of Temple, and it gets a chance when it hosts the Owls Sunday night. Also in the AAC, Connecticut hosts Tulane.
- William & Mary tries to end a brief slide when it goes to Hofstra. The Tribe is now a half game behind UNC-Wilmington and Northeastern for first in the CAA.
- Iona can wrap up the MAAC regular season title if it can defeat Monmouth, a team that knocked off the Gaels earlier this year.
- Evansville has quietly won 19 games, but its 20th win surely wouldn’t be quiet if it can win at Wichita State on Sunday.
- Old rivals Lafayette and Lehigh face off in a full day of Patriot League action.
Have a great Sunday.