This time next week, millions of brackets will be filled out and March Madness will be in full swing.
The UC Davis Men's basketball team is looking to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, and for the second time in program history. But first, the Aggies must defend their Big West Conference Tournament Championship in Anaheim during this weekend.
"I think there's always great energy, enthusiasm, anticipation," said Aggies head coach Jim Les, when asked if there's a different energy going into this year's tournament as defending champions. "You know it's a big weekend, it's march madness it's for all the marbles. So as much as this group, I'm proud of them and what they've achieved up to this point. There's eight teams coming to Anaheim all thinking they can win three games in a row and get to the Tournament."
Les is going into this year's postseason with his second conference Coach of the Year honor. The former Sacramento Kings player has felt the pressure of playing on a big stage, but that nervous, pregame feeling never gets old.
"If it's something important on the line you always should have butterflies, some nervousness," said Les said. "I's more, for me, making sure I've done everything possible to prepare them. We feel good about our preparation up to this point, there's still more to do tonight and tomorrow but the butterflies will be there come game time."
The top-seeded Aggies face their first tournament test Thursday at noon against eighth-seeded UC Riverside, a team they beat twice this season. In their most recent meeting, UC Davis edged out the Highlanders with another buzzer-beating shot by breakout star, T.J. Shorts, who just became the first player in Big West Conference history to earn Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year honors in the same season.
"It's amazing," said Shorts, on the honor. "I mean, I'm just blessed and I'm thankful to my coaches and my teammates for believing in me this whole year so honestly I'm just blessed and just enjoying this ride."
Shorts joined a basketball program coming off its first Big West Conference Tournament championship, first NCAA Tournament appearance and its first NCAA Tournament win over North Carolina Central in the First Four. The Aggies ultimately lost to Kansas in the first round, but the experience proved to be even more motivation for returning players like junior guard Siler Schneider.
"Making the NCAA Tournament is a lifelong dream of mine," Schneider said. "I was able to get there last year but I think just getting there makes me want to get there again even more because I want to get deeper, make even more noise."
UC Davis will be missing a key player from last year's postseason run: Chima Moneke. The star forward is the Aggies leading scorer and rebounder, but was suspended indefinitely from the team last month "for violating team rules that govern conduct at the team's hotel", according to a Feb. 3 tweet from the team's Twitter handle.
The circumstances surrounding Moneke's suspension remain a mystery as the university continues to look into the situation. Moneke averaged 18 points per game and nine rebounds for the Aggies, who've remained resilient in his absence.
The team enters the tournament having won five straight games, including a double overtime victory at UC Irvine in their regular season finale to clinch the conference championship. Les and his team are embracing their success, but understand that being defending champions and the top-seed puts a target on their backs.
"They've seemed to pick it up pretty good now late in the year and they're playing their best basketball at the right time of the year so now they're comfortable with that target," Les said.
Les credits his confidence in Shorts as the reason UC Davis has been able to close out games this season, but the junior from Orange County knows the challenge that lies ahead in winning three games in three days.
"I anticipate adversity hitting," said Shorts. "Obviously, the whole year we've been facing adversity. We don't know how it's going to hit, when it's going to hit... But we just have to be prepared for it. When it does hit, just keep battling through and keep fighting and see our way out of it."
UC Davis faces UC Riverside Thursday, March 7, at noon, in the quarterfinals of the Big West Conference Tournament in Anaheim at the Honda Center.
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