Season Previews Part II: 2016-17 Men's Basketball
The nine men's basketball coaches talked to BigWest.org to preview the upcoming 2016-17 season. Today's previews focus on UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara and Hawai‘i.
by Mike Villamor, Assistant Commissioner/Communications
YOUNG PUPS AND THE OLD DOGS
Russell Turner has a young team in 2016-17.
Seven true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen, to be exact.
But the cupboard is not empty by any means. Make no mistake, Turner still has talent surrounding him, but whereas in recent seasons the majority of his lineup was filled with seasoned veterans, new faces will be required to step up to sustain the success of a program that has experienced four consecutive 20-win seasons.
“It will be a lot different,” Turner said. “We’ve got great energy, real competition for minutes. We’ve got a lot of talent. But it will be interesting to see how quickly these guys can adapt to college basketball and how good we can be.”
UCI will also need to adapt to the absence of a mammoth presence that helped bring excitement and joy to the program for the last three seasons. Mamadou Ndiaye, the 7-6 center whose smile was as big as some of the dunks he threw down to the delight of the Bren Center faithful, declared for the NBA draft following his junior season. He left the school ranked No. 3 on the Big West Conference’s career blocked shots list with 218.
Much of what UCI did centered around Ndiaye, both offensively and defensively. He was a critical piece in getting the program to its first NCAA Tournament in 2015.
And now he’s off to pursue his dreams in professional basketball. But Turner doesn’t feel that the players on his current roster shouldn’t have dreams of their own.
“He had an incredible impact on our campus and on our program,” Turner said. “He was maybe the most fun guy I’ve ever been able to coach. Our program is going to change a lot with him leaving, and that’s going to be an adjustment for everyone. But it’s one we’re excited to make.”
Turner is a throwback guy, a coach who prefers playing big when much of the college basketball world opts for a more guard-oriented, perimeter approach. So it’s not surprising that, in spite of Ndiaye’s departure, the roster is still plenty big.
It’s a great opportunity for another giant to step out of the shadows of the man affectionately known as “Dou.”
Senior Ioannis Dimakopoulos is a 7-2 center and ready to stamp his own mark on the program. He’s played in 94 career games with the Anteaters, but with just four starts.
The native of Greece has been productive when he’s gotten his minutes. Averaging 14.8 minutes per game last year, he ranked third on the team with 34 blocked shots. He’s also got an array of post-up moves to complement his ability to hit the occasional three, which will undoubtedly improve his scoring average of 5.2 points per game.
But he, along with 6-10 sophomore forward Jonathan Galloway, are two of the main holdovers from last year’s club. It’s his time to shine.
“He is probably feeling pressure to step into the role that Mamadou left, but Ioannis played almost as many minutes as Mamadou did last year,” Turner said. “I think he’s well prepared for it even though he’s a different player. It’s a big opportunity for him.”
The Anteaters have a pair of fourth-year players on the squad. Dimakopoulos is one of them.
The other is a candidate for Big West Player of the Year honors, and that buoys Turner to possess such a valuable centerpiece.
Luke Nelson, a 6-3 guard, enters his senior campaign as the Big West’s active career leader in points (1,226), assists (361) and steals (115). He’s the only returning member from the 2015-16 all-conference first team.
At times, he has proven to be a devastating scorer, such as the 36-point effort he dropped on Cal Poly in last year’s first round of the conference tournament.
But he has played within the framework of a balanced approach his first three years with the program. Turner expects that his workload will increase exponentially this season.
“I think he’s going to be asked now to score more with this team,” he said. “So I’m curious to see how that will impact him. I know he’s coming into the year with a great amount of confidence and what he will be able to do in our league. But he’s going to need other guys to play well around him to keep teams from just being focused solely on stopping him.
Somewhere, in the distance, seven true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen should be listening.
“(Luke’s) not been able to have as big an impact I think as his talent might allow. This year, he’s going to have that opportunity to carry a big load.”
Dennis Cutts sees the signs that the UC Riverside program is about to turn the corner.
The Highlanders set Division I program records in 2015-16 for road wins – both overall (7) and in the Big West (4). The 14 victories total tied for the second-most in the school’s Division I history. And UCR has made two straight trips to the Big West Tournament as the No. 6 seed.
So what does the fourth-year head coach identify as the next step in the program’s continued improvement?
“We do need to get up into that top four,” Cutts said. “That’s a big challenge with this team. That’s the goal, that’s what we’re working for, that we need to be a top tier team in this league.”
What makes that goal realistic is the fact that the roster is completely intact. All nine scholarship players from the 2015-16 season return, making the Highlanders one of the rare programs in the country to retain all of their talent.
Cutts, who joined the UCR program in May of 2007 as an assistant coach, has witnessed periods of instability. But since becoming the interim head coach on July 10, 2013, and since having the “interim” label dropped one year later, Cutts has emphasized continuity.
“We really talked about building our program and I just feel like we have stabilized it,” he said. “To have every player back, feels like the first time I can really build forward with this team.”
Big things are expected from senior Secean Johnson. The 6-5 forward earned honorable mention all-conference recognition after averaging 12.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season.
Alex Larsson, a 6-9 junior forward, has started 62 of 64 career games as an anchor on the front line. The team also received key contributions from a pair of seniors-to-be in Gentrey Thomas and Malik Thames.
The Highlanders, who canned a single-season school record 252 three-pointers last year, lost Jaylen Bland to graduation. The senior was responsible for 118 of those treys, tying for the fourth-highest total in Big West history.
But the Highlanders signed one of the highest profile recruits in school history, a local kid named Dikymbe Martin who Cutts calls “maybe our best true point guard since I’ve been there.”
What does it all mean? No one knows yet for sure. But the combination of stability and ability to win on the road may portend good things to come.
“It’s important. Anytime a program wants to take a step, it has to prove some toughness to go on the road and win,” said Cutts. “I think it was a real sign of growth for us.”
One of those road wins came against Big West champion Hawai‘i.
Time will tell if even better things are in store.
HANDING OVER THE REINS
Bob Williams minces no words as he surveys a team that lost six seniors. The 19th-year UC Santa Barbara head coach knows someone needs to assume a leadership role brought about by the departures, including last year’s Big West scoring champion Michael Bryson.
Fortunately, Williams has a couple of candidates to fill the void.
Step right up Gabe Vincent and Eric Childress.
“It’s their team,” Williams said. “There’s no mistake about it.”
The duo started a combined 65 of 66 games in 2015-16 to form the core of a backcourt – along with Bryson – that helped the Gauchos win 19 games and claim the program’s first postseason win since 1990 as a participant in the inaugural Vegas 16 tournament.
In particular, Vincent provided a true No. 2 scoring threat as his 14.1 points per game average ranked No. 9 in the Big West. He made 80 three-pointers, the second-highest total in school history, and his work on the defensive end (team-high tying 41 steals) solidifies him as one of the conference’s top two-way players.
“Gabe’s ready for it,” Williams said in regards to Vincent’s ability to provide leadership. “He’s been a prime guy for us since the first day he stepped on the court. He is so good at so many different facets of the game.”
Childress has been an excellent ball distributor as both a backup and starting point guard during his three seasons in Goleta. He boasts career totals of 306 assists against just 167 turnovers. Williams hopes that Childress adds another dimension to his game in 2016-17.
“Eric is going to have to be more offensive-oriented at the point guard position,” said Williams.
Scoring certainly will need come from other areas for the Gauchos to have a legitimate shot at contending for the Big West title. They have 6-8 Jalen Canty, the 2016 California junior college player of the year, as a welcome addition to the frontline.
Sophomores Maxwell Kupchak and Jarriesse Blackmon also could see increased roles in hopes of buttressing the scoring and rebounding load.
But make no mistake. The 2016-17 Gauchos will go as far as Vincent and Childress will take them.
“They’re tough; they’re physical. They both defend; they’re both good off the bounce,” explained Williams. “They both rebound it, but need to rebound it more. They’re going to have to be a do-it-all backcourt. They have to be the best backcourt in the league for us to be competitive in league.”
NO REARVIEW MIRROR FOR GANOT
The 2015-16 season was a incredible one for Eran Ganot and the entire Hawai‘i program, and sparked a statewide celebration.
After all, the Rainbow Warriors won a school-record 28 games, captured both the Big West regular season and tournament titles, and defeated California in the first round for the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
Quite a haul for the Joe B. Hall Award recipient, bestowed upon the top first-year head coach by CollegeInsider.com. By the way, Ganot posted the most wins by a first-year head coach in Big West history, eclipsing the marks that the legendary duo of Jerry Tarkanian and Lute Olson co-owned.
But now that’s all in the past. Looking forward, UH is ineligible for postseason play in 2016-17.
And there are 10 newcomers on this year’s roster. Stefan Jankovic, last season’s Big West Player of the Year, is off to the NBA playing with the Miami Heat. Fellow first team all-conference standout Aaron Valdes also pursued professional opportunities.
Unofficially, UH may have the youngest roster in the NCAA. And that doesn’t phase Ganot one bit.
“You just continue to focus on what you can control. We focus on the process,” said Ganot. “As we always want to say, bring on the obstacles. One of the great things you can do is focus on what you have, not what you don’t.”
The Rainbow Warriors still have an opportunity to defend their regular season title. They have 2016 national runner-up North Carolina visiting the Stan Sheriff Center in November. They are once again hosting one of the top ESPN holiday tournaments in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
And, of course, they’re in Hawai‘i. Great support, great fan base. And the administration locked in Ganot for an extension, another two years that keeps him in O’ahu through the 2019-20 season.
The real fun will be in observing who emerges from the gaggle of newbies on the squad. The senior member is sophomore Sheriff Drammeh, who averaged 13.4 minutes per game last year.
So the opportunity for Ganot and company to create more happy memories will loom large. At the same time, he can’t help but look back – just a little bit – at last season’s magical run.
“It was surreal,” Ganot said. “Made people believe in the islands again. We hadn’t seen the NCAA Tournament since 2002. Our future teams will lean on how that group stuck together to perform at such a high level, and to perform the right way. They see a calling to see our program through this period.”