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College basketball’s Hollywood movie is based in Riverside

Mike Magpayo overcame adversity to make history for his school and his people

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 12 UC Riverside at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Prepare, focus, execute. We call it PFE. I write it on every single thing I do,” UC Riverside athletic director Wes Mallette exclaims.

The sentiment comes from his former college football teammate at James Madison, Billy Johnson, who passed away a few weeks ago. Not only did UC Riverside prepare, and focus, through a treacherous few months last college basketball season, but they executed — keeping their program and finishing with its best season since joining the Big West in 2001.

Mallette was appointed interim athletic director in January of 2021. Not only was he thrown into the job halfway through the academic year, but he was handed a department that was threatened to drop all athletics.

It took him no time to ensure the retention of the basketball program though. Less than 100 days to be exact. As Mike Magpayo and the team succeeded on the court, Mallette changed the outlook for UC Riverside forever off the court.

“One of my mentors said to me, ‘The role of interim if you think about it, operate as if,’” Mallette said, “It goes back to culture, caring, listening, meeting people where they are, and taking them by the hand and walking them through something that they’ve never been through before.”

From the first moment when Magpayo was named the interim, there was belief and buy in for the team. In an era where the transfer portal never sleeps, not a player on the UC Riverside roster sought different pastures. Much of Magpayo’s coaching staff was still intact — he kept assistants Micheal Czepil and Micheal Lecak. Even in the face of turmoil, Magpayo says he is the luckiest coach in college basketball.

Now months later, Magpayo prepares his team to open up the college basketball season with San Diego State and Arizona State. Magpayo admits the Aztecs are very tough and he and his staff have been working hard to get their guys ready.

UC Riverside All-Big West player Zyon Pullin is confident his team can pull out victories to start the year. The Highlanders were picked third in the Big West preseason poll and they are in a solid position to make their first NCAA Tourney in school history.

“Teams know how we are good now, which makes it tough to schedule,” Magpayo said of the non-conference slate. “ ... Now we have to step up our competition. We have two very tough tests to start the season. Our guys are ready for it.”

Brick by Brick

The UC Riverside practice opens up with players running defensive stances with bricks in hand. The players crouch in their defensive stances and perfect their close outs against coaches shooting the ball. The Highlander’s brick-wall defense that ranked 17th in the country in efficient field goal percentage last year is literally built brick by brick.

It’s one of the many coaching tricks Magpayo learned from his mentor David Patrick. Magpayo owes a lot to his mentor, friend, and fellow analytics wizard now coaching at Oklahoma. In his conversations with Patrick, the Sooners assistant coach is astonish Magpayo uses the drill and sarcastically teases him that the players may start throwing bricks at him one day.

Thankfully for Magpayo, that will be the last things on players mind. The UC Riverside basketball team is a close group because of the family atmosphere Magpayo has created in the short time. It’s clear the players love him, but admittedly Magpayo loves to keep his team uncomfortable.

His focus in the offseason was about keeping the team chemistry at a high point. Staying connected as a team is something imperative to the Highlanders’ success. So last month, Magpayo took the team on a two-day retreat to Big Bear in northern California.

“Our team is a kind of a quiet group, so last month we did a hike in the forest that most of the guys never done,” Magpayo said. “We do exercises where coaches and players had to speak about a hero in their life and a hardship in their life. ... It’s important to talk about stuff you normally don’t talk about with each other. The team genuinely likes spending time with each other.”

The chemistry built within the team through the trials has allowed the Highlanders to be successful in the face of adversity. Magpayo took over as interim head coach last summer.

When given the opportunity, Magpayo hit the ground running as the intern, rightfully earning the Joe B. Hall award given to the the top first year coach in college basketball. Magpayo lead the Highlanders to a 14-8 record, UC Riverside finished third in the Big West (best in school history), they won their first Big West tournament game in more than a decade and accomplished all of this while the athletic department was in financial turmoil with the university considering shutting down the entire athletics department for good.

Riverside also finished 106th in’s rankings to end the season — the school hadn’t finished below 200 ever in the past five years.

Mike Magpayo made college basketball history when he beat Washington in his coaching debut last season. In that moment, Magpayo became the first full coach of Filipino or Asian decent to win a Division I men’s basketball game. He was able to secure that in his first opportunity when Riverside beat the Washington, 57-42, last season. It was Magpayo’s first game as the head coach. He missed the season opener last season against Pacific after he received news that is wife was ready to deliver his first child. Upon landing with the team to play Pacific, Magpayo bought his first flight back to home. A crazy couple weeks week later he made history for his team and culture, ignited what would be a memorable season.

“I didn’t even know I was the first full blooded Asian American coach, until people started writing about it,” Magpayo said. “There were so many other things I had to focus about. Getting the team ready, I had my baby right before our opening game, the athletic department stuff. The time gave me a sense to focus on what really matters.”

The craziest part about Magpayo’s story is his life journey made him the most qualified person to run the program. Magpayo didn’t have the typical ascension to head coach.

Previously, Magpayo coached junior varsity basketball while doing his undergraduate degree at UC Santa Barbara. After graduating from UCSB, Magpayo started a successful real estate business with his best friend. Magpayo built a successful business that housed over 40 employees. But like many real estate investors, disaster struck as the 2007-08 financial crash ravished the industry.

That time period was one of the most challenging periods in his life.

“Those 40 employees that worked for me were my friends or family,” he said. “So, having to lay off friends and family, there was a lot of tears. Even last year, there’s nothing that affected me at that level. I look upon that as 13 years of experience, getting older and maturing. I learned how to handle adversity, attack with a mission and purpose. When getting the job I was just thrilled to be a head coach. It was dream come true.”

Dealing with financial crisis with his business has helped Magpayo be patient and navigate the financial hardships that plagued the University during COVID-19 pandemic altered 2020-21 season.

Ironically, the financial crisis led Magpayo to his coaching career. After a long season, Magpayo and his partner knew they needed to learn more experience. So Magpayo enrolled at NYU to pursue his masters. The plan was for Magpayo’s business partner to run the company from L.A. while Magpayo did remote work to improve his credentials.

Interested in continuing his coaching hobby, Magpayo wrote letters to all the D-I schools While there, Magpayo wrote letters to all the D-I coaches he could. While at NYU, Magpayo wrote letters to all the college basketball coaches in New York area — one of them responded.

Kyle Smith responded and met Magpayo on campus. Magpayo offered to volunteer his time. Magpayo remembers walking into Smith’s office and Smith told him to help the assistant process transcripts and that the assistant “loves Filipinos; he is married to one.”

So, Magpayo helped with the transcripts. A month later Smith invited Magpayo to volunteer at his basketball camp where they built a relationship. Magpayo scouted an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. By the time August rolled around, Smith offered Magpayo a director of operations position.

“From there, Kyle invited me to help his basketball camp, we built a relationship there. I hustled my bought off and did everything I asked,” Magpayo said. “ ... I didn’t know it immediately but I had to sell my share of the company and withdraw from NYU. That’s how I started chasing this crazy coaching dream, it was totally random coming off a cold email.”

Magpayo really learned from the long time Randy Bennett disciple, crediting him for basically everything he knows.

“We basically run the same program,” he said. “We are very analytics heavy, all the five-on-five situation stuff, all the stats we track, and efficiencies we take track of, I learned everything from Kyle.”

Analytically driven

Although, Magpayo implements old-school drills, he is far from an old-school coach. He is invested in analytics, his staff stats out every individual drill and five on five. They are very big on situational basketball. Magpayo is considered one of the most forward thinking coaches in the sport.

He blends the old school with the new. Everything that happens down to the 3-point shootarounds are tracked and analyzed at UC Riverside practices. He stole his mentors trick of using hustle stats to motivate and track player performance. Players have bought into the analytic approach.

Their scrimmages are divided by what are called “innings” or a round of three possessions. Magpayo is adaptive, he is big on delegation dividing responsibilities among his staff. The analytical features Magpayo believes in is points per possession, 3-point percentage, turnover percentage, and effective field goal percentage

Like all of us nerds at Mid-Major Madness, he tracks KenPom daily and uses it to scout his opponents. Last season the Highlanders ranked 22nd nationally in three point attempts, and finished 37th nationally in 3-point percentage. This UCR should rank similarly returning six different guys that shoot 36% or better. He believes in them and does a great job of managing his people- like the real life CEO he once was.

Far reaching

On top of coaching, Magpayo founded and serves as the president of the Asian Coaches Association, an organization that serves to unify, support and elevate all Asian coaches beyond just the basketball community.

“I want to be able to keep in touch and have a relationship with every Asian coach in college basketball,” he said.

As far as being the face for Asian coaching in men’s college basketball, Magpayo humbly admits he is not at that level yet.

“For me to be that guy to open doors for other coaches I have to focus winning here,” he said. “Otherwise I’m not going to be able to make that much of an impact.”

Magpayo has a coach in the NBA ranks who he talks to regularly. Erik Spoelstra is the only coach of Asian heritage in the NBA. He’s the pride of the Philippines in the basketball community.

“Me and Coach Spoelstra will get on the phone and talk at least once a week,” Magpayo sai. “He spoke at the ACA meetings over Zoom. It’s crazy because we will be talking about our teams and he will ask me about offensive and defensive philosophies, and then he will ask me advice about game planning — it’s crazy. He’s been a huge mentor and role model for me. I want to be that same type of mentor for others.”

This year

Players like Dom Pickett have been at Riverside through it all. In his freshman season, the Highlanders finished with a 7-21 record, losing its final eight games of the season. Although he didn’t play, Pickett entered the season as a manager. In January he was granted a walk-on spot.

The next season, Pickett got his first playing time for the Highlanders, playing all 30 games. He would start five games including one against Cal where he logged 32 minutes.

He would then end last season with a six-steal game in a Big West Quarterfinal victory, was the fourth-highest scorer and on full scholarship.

Over the summer, Pickett was in the weight room every day, focusing on building his body up for this season. That is quite scary for a player who averaged 2.4 fouls drawn per 40 in 2019-20.

This season, he returns as the third-leading scorer and could be one of the best under-the-radar players in the country. He has played himself from a student manager to a name professional scouts should know.

“He’s gonna surprise some people this year. He made another jump,” Magpayo said, “(NBA scouts) are definitely going to ask me ‘who’s that?’”

There have been scouts in attendance at Riverside practices, and that is in large part due to Pullin, who was recently named Preseason All-Big West. Last season, Pullin was named the league player of the week twice, while averaging 12.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. Dallas Mavericks sent a few scouts to see UCR against Cal State LA.

Both him and Pickett are expected to run leadership roles this season.

“I’m telling you, these two are attention to detail, they’re kinda freaks in that way,” Magpayo said.

Along with them, Magpayo has eight players from either New Zealand or Australia on his roster, incorporating a recruiting skill from his time with Washington State head coach Kyle Smith.

“Yeah, we’re blessed. That’s really our point of difference, why we have our success,” Magpayo said.

Of those players, Callum McRae returns after sitting out last season with a knee injury. In 2019-20, the Kiwi averaged 9.6 points, and 6.2 assists per game, while shooting 54.4% from the field.

Along with him, fellow Kiwi Flynn Cameron continues to get better. The guard led the team in rebounds last season, scoring the second-most three-pointers, and starting all but one game.

The Highlanders' defense and average length of possession is truly where they have the advantage over almost all their opponents though, finishing in the bottom 30 of possession length and ranking in the top 100 of many defensive shooting categories.

In only six of its 22 games last season, Riverside gave up more than 70 points. Always impressive, especially when you’re playing a mostly conference schedule.

A victory or two this week, and we’ll be able to add another chapter to the Hollywood movie happening in Riverside.