For UCR basketball, greater challenges lie ahead

In sports, the year is measured through benchmarks. Where does your record stand after the first 10 games of the season? How about the first 20? How did you fare over the long road trip? And did you handle business during the long stretch of home games?

One not often mentioned, though ever so important, is the first and final games of each calendar year where, for the sake of avoiding any bad omens, all teams hope to earn a win. For the UC Riverside men’s basketball team, they failed to deliver on that front, suffering a 22-point blowout loss to Ohio on Wednesday, Dec. 30 and a 67-48 defeat to CSU Bakersfield in their first game of 2016. Duly noted, though, is the fact that these losses came on the back end of a four-game win streak, which was highlighted by a 95-48 victory over Life Pacific College — by far, their largest margin of victory of the season.

And now, the team has another significant benchmark in their sights. Interconference play kicks off on Thursday, Jan. 7 with a matchup against Cal State Fullerton, who currently sits just below UCR in the Big West standings with a 7-6 overall record. Riverside, meanwhile, is third at 9-7.

Pressure often coincides with expectation and, prior to last year, UCR had rarely felt much of either heading into the conference season. This time is different. The team’s stars Jaylen Bland and Taylor Johns comprise one-third of the preseason All-Conference Team and newcomers Secean Johnson, D.J. Sylvester, Malik Thames and Menno Dykstra have all continued to prove themselves as crucial players to the team’s success. To put it frankly, expectations are higher than ever and after suffering a crushing loss to now second-place UC Irvine (10-5) in the Big West Quarterfinals last year, the Highlanders have a legitimate opportunity to avenge themselves.

To improve upon last year’s 7-9 conference record, though, the team needs to show that they can deliver in the area of consistency. For every big win over Life Pacific or Delaware State this season, there is a six-point loss to a previously winless University of Rice team or a blowout defeat at the hands of Houston Baptist. These types of results are all too reminiscent of last season’s losses to Sacramento State, Northern Illinois and Grand Canyon University — teams which, while competitive in their own realm, should be handily beaten by even a semi-competitive UCR squad.

Yet, when looking around the conference, it’d be difficult to not consider UC Riverside among the favorites to potentially earn a Big West title come March’s conference tourney. As of now, there exist two obvious front-runners. Current conference leader Hawai’i tops, honing a roster loaded with two-way threats led by the best do-it-all guard in the Big West, Roderick Bobbitt. And last year’s conference champion UC Irvine is a close second, with literally the biggest weapon in the NCAA — 7’6” junior behemoth, Mamadou Ndiaye — at their disposal.

However, beyond those two, the rest of the conference is, at its best, an assortment of question marks. Fullerton has reeled since their 6-1 start to the season, going on to lose five straight; last year’s third-place finisher, UC Santa Barbara, currently holds the conference’s fourth-worst record and has struggled mightily without the post presence of now-graduated center Alan WIlliams. And as for last season’s top regular season record holder? Those UC Davis Aggies underwent their very own five-game losing streak and currently sit second-to-last in the conference.

Needless to say, parity in the conference is much more prevalent than in year’s past, but a much-improved UCR team must still prove it doesn’t belong among that group of dubious squads. As a team, the Highlanders have their best win percentage in nonconference play since the 2008-09 season and their current 5.3 point differential on the year is second only to Hawaii’s whopping 12.7.
Yet this could all mean very little if it isn’t carried over into conference play, where opponents are more adept to your tendencies and have many years worth of experience against you at their disposal. This lurks as the biggest benchmark the Highlanders have yet to clear and the resolution to such can’t be expected anytime soon. Nevertheless, UCR’s chances to be serious competitors come March are well and alive, and this is something that could not at all have been said just two years ago.

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