If the name Jim Les rings a bell in the month of March, there’s a reason for that.
Les and his Bradley Braves effectively busted some brackets in the 2006 NCAA Tournament when the 13th-seeded Braves knocked out No. 4 seed Kansas in the opening round of the tournament and No. 5 seed Pittsburgh in the second.
Five years later, Les was given the reigns to the UC Davis program, returning him to the area where his name was familiar for another reason. A former Sacramento King and former coach of the WNBA’s now-defunt Sacramento Monarchs, Les returned to the Capitol City with the intent to replicate the success he saw at Bradley, his alma mater.
“I saw an unbelievable university with excellence all around the campus and the goal of how could we raise the level of excellence of our basketball program to meet all the other areas of our campus that exude such positive accolades and so I love that challenge,” Les said. “And from my playing days here, I love the area.”
It was also around that time that former NBA shooting guard Hersey Hawkins made a phone call to his former Bradley teammate and longtime friend Les. Hawkins’ son Corey was a freshman at Arizona State getting sparse playing time. Corey, a highly-touted local product out of Goodyear, Ariz., came to the conclusion that Arizona State wasn’t a fit.
A basketball power UC Davis was not, but none the less, Hawkins had finally found a fit.
“I think ultimately, a lot of people get caught up in big-name schools and going somewhere that is a renown institution, a basketball or sports school,” Hawkins said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could play everyday and where I could make a difference with my talent.”
Hawkins’ talent did make quite a difference. The Aggies are in the midst of a huge growth spurt, and the contributions from Hawkins, the nation’s 13th-leading scorer (20.3 points per game), have been a part of the turnaround.
In just its fifth official season of Division I play, the team has already equaled its 14-win total from the 2009-10 season, its best to date at the Division I level, and is on track for its first winning season. In addition, the Aggies’ nine wins in Big West Conference play is a program best.
Currently sitting in sixth-place in the Big West heading into the final weekend of play, UC Davis is on the cusp of what is looking like a promising future.
“It’s exciting, the whole town, the whole school is pumped for it,” Hawkins said. “We’re going in the right direction and we’re only going to continue to get better. We can only go up from here.”
Others are catching on to Davis’ rise. The Aggies were awarded their first nationally-televised home game in program history, and will take on the Big West’s best team in Long Beach State Thursday night. In the first meeting between the two, Davis gave The Beach a scare, leading them throughout much of the game. Hawkins scored 21 points while Long Beach’s Keala King, a guard who played in front of Hawkins at Arizona State, scored 22.
“I think some Big West teams underestimated us because of our season last year,” Hawkins said. “I think Long Beach was a perfect example. We gave them a run for their money and I don’t think they were expecting that at all.”
Last season, Les’ first, the Aggies recorded a dismal 5-26 mark, going just 3-13 in the Big West. But Hawkins was sitting out his mandatory transfer year and this season’s stars in Ryan Howley and Ryan Sypkens were both injured.
Howley, a senior, and Skypens, a junior, took on integral roles as veteran leaders.
“They worked through rehab and came back from their injuries but also they became students of the game,” Les said. “Sitting on the sidelines and watching practice and I think those guys came into the year with a real clear understanding of hey we’ve got a new coach with a new system and here’s what he wants.”
What developed was an improved product in nearly all facets of the game. The Aggies are the most efficient shooting team in the Big West shooting 47.6 percent from the field and the fourth-best offensive team scoring more than 70 points per game.
Sypkens is averaging nearly 15 points per game, Howley has emerged as a top rebounder and sophomore J.T. Adrenele’s 57.6 percent mark from the field is the 14th-best in Division I.
Les points to Hawkins as the “x-factor.”
“When you’re best player and leading scorer is a guy that’s really well-liked guy I just think it helps the culture of the program,” Les said. “One, guys like screening for him, they like giving him the ball, and, two, he’s so unselfish that he reciprocates. When he’s drawing so much attention like he is lately and there’s three guys running at him, he’s making the next good basketball play and trusting his teammates to make shots.”
Basketball is deceptively popular in Sacramento. An area full of passionate fans is often overshadowed by the struggles of its marquee team, the Kings. Les had experienced the fervent fan base a player and wanted to tap into that and draw those same fans about 20 miles east to Davis.
“To me, that was the challenge, that there really isn’t the passionate basketball fans like the Kings fans (at the college level). I thought, what a great opportunity to make UC Davis the college team of the Sacramento region,” Les said. “Now we’ve got to do our part. We’ve got to put a good product on the floor, we’ve got to put a winning product on the floor, but certainly the upside is huge.”
Les, Hawkins and the rest of the Aggies are well on their way to becoming the power team they want to be.