Coach Jim Les remembers the Aggies’ score eight minutes into their NCAA Tournament first round game against #1 Kansas.
Sure, early game scores are not indicative of a program’s success. But in this game, there’s no doubt that the score was telling of the potential deep in the University of California at Davis basketball program. Keep in mind, Davis was a D-II team until 2004 and hasn’t sent any players to the NBA.
In this moment of time, the Jayhawks had five turnovers and the Aggies had just one. Frank Mason III had missed five shots and Josh Jackson hadn’t begun dominating; he had seven points like Aggies’ guard Siler Schneider. Chima Moneke was protecting the paint and getting to the line. This was a glimpse at the Aggies team of the future.
The Aggies have captured the Big West championship two times in the last three years, and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2017. See, their 38 point loss to the Jayhawks wasn’t so bad. Instead, it may have been a transformative moment for this basketball program.
Just ask Big West Sixth Man of the Year and Kansas native, Schneider.
“Basketball is like a religion in Kansas.” Schneider said. “The success from last year is huge for us, it’s kind of putting us on the map.”
But most of you are probably wondering, where is UC Davis on a map?
Most people associate California basketball with two areas: the Bay and L.A. While the Bay Area is Steph Curry’s domain, L.A. is Kobeville and the coming of Ball and Co. Then there’s superstar-less Sacramento, and fifteen minutes away is where you’ll find UC Davis.
The agricultural core of California has been devoid of athletic promise on the college or professional level for a while. Davis has always been a strong academic institution, but it is now ranked the 10th best public school in the nation and is extremely selective in regards to the students that are admitted.
“It’s great because everyone who is at Davis is brilliant at whatever they do,” star forward Chima Moneke said.
But basketball in this region is certainly on the up and up. Phoenix Suns star Kevin Johnson graced the city as mayor, winning the election in 2008 and re-election in 2012. A host of NBA talent has come from the area including current NBA players like Matt Barnes and Ryan Anderson. Last year, the Kings began playing in the $534 million Golden 1 Center, and even hosted NCAA Tournament games there.
Coach Jim Les is no stranger to Sacramento. He played on the Kings from 1990 to 1994, and was an assistant coach for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs. However, he knows Davis’s success will only come if the program begins expanding their brand.
“A lot of people in California know about Davis, but I’m a Midwest guy and [when] I’m in Chicago not a lot of people know about UC Davis,” Les said in an interview with KHTK Sports 1140.
Les brings success coaching mid-major squads. He coached his alma mater, Bradley University, to a Sweet 16 in 2006 (beating the Jayhawks along the way). He’s re-made the Davis program as well, coaching them from ninth place in the Big West to first.
Ironically, UC Davis’ success starts with a foreigner. The latter, Chima Moneke has lived in five countries and didn’t know anything about Davis except that it was in California. We wrote about his twisting journey during the tournament , but it is clear that he is more than that: he’s a cornerstone of the program, and might even be the program’s first NBA Draft pick.
As a junior, Moneke was named Big West Newcomer of the Year and was named First Team all-conference. He averaged 14.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and had 14 double-doubles. He was a beast on the boards and in the paint not only in Big West play, but against strong opponents like Oakland and Cal in which he continued producing double-doubles. Even more encouraging is that he had the highest FG percentage on the team at 52 percent. And yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg for Moneke.
“I want people to see that I can do more than I showed this past year and that we can get back to the tournament,” Moneke said. “[I want people to see] a more versatile Chima, someone who can do basically everything on the court.”
With the losses of leading scorer Brynton Lemar and seasoned guards Lawrence White and Darius Graham, Moneke will have an even greater weight on his shoulders next year. Arrell Hennings will need to take over the guard position, Schneider will need to channel his inner Ron Baker and Moneke will have to show he’s worthy of the NBA.
“I think this year was a guard oriented team [but] I think next year is going to be a lot different,” Moneke said.
Another essential element of the Aggies roster next year will be Schneider. He averaged 10.3 points per game as a sophomore and was instrumental in getting the Aggies to the tourney.
Next year the Aggies will get to prove themselves on a bigger stage. They will be playing in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational on November 23rd and 24th. Competitors include Xavier, George Washington, Kansas State and Arizona State so UC Davis will have some good games on the docket.
UC Davis will still need to win the Big West title and tournament to advance to the NCAAM Tournament because of the conference’s place as a one-bid league.
“It frustrates all of us,” Moneke said of the Aggies’ lack of national television coverage. “Whenever we play on ESPN, the fans come out and it’s a crazy atmosphere.”
However, the fan base is certainly growing as well, and the Aggies received a fantastic welcome home, even after losing to Kansas.
And looking towards the future, the Aggies are gaining traction in the transfer game. They just swooped Saint Mary’s guard Stefan Gonzalez, who shows promise of an efficient player himself. He averaged 4.0 points as a freshman in just ten minutes, but his workload decreased last year. As to why he chose Davis? Simply put: trust.
“I felt like it was really tough for me to go in to Coach Bennett during the year and ask him why I wasn’t playing and what I could do better,” Gonzalez said. “[Coach Les] will get mad at you if you don’t go in and talk to him at least every other day. He’s open and can talk to you about anything, not just basketball.”
They have the coach, the international forward and an underrated swingman. With more transfers like Gonzalez and recruits in the future, who knows where the Aggies can go?
“We don’t want this to be a one and done,” Les said an interview with KHTK Sports 1140. “We don’t want to come in as a #16 seed.”
If the Aggies continue on their upward trend, the program might reach new limits that they hadn’t thought they could.