In part one of this series, where we sit down with ESPN’s Big West college basketball analyst Richie Schueler, we took an early look into the highly-anticipated season of the UC Riverside women’s basketball team. This week, Schueler and I discussed the men’s team who — while their expectations aren’t set quite as high as they are for the women — have a legitimate opportunity to contend for a conference championship and improve upon last year’s 14-17 record. Here’s what he had to say of the team:
Myles: The coaches projected UCR to finish fifth in the conference, how much of a shot are you giving them to improve on that?
Richie: I think this is a team that can be better than fifth place but they have to be clicking on all cylinders and they have to mold this team together for that to happen. And that’s with any team, not just UC Riverside. But I think fifth place is a big jump from what they were picked a year ago (ninth, which is last). I think they — just like the women’s team — have gained a lot of respect from teams around the league and I think other teams look at them as a viable contender now.
M: What has made them a viable contender?
R: (Head coach) Dennis Cutts. Coach Cutts has been outstanding. When you look at the way he has developed this program now in his third year as head coach, the program has slowly improved as far as number of wins as far as the level of talent that they’ve had and I think he’s really got these players playing at a higher level than we’ve seen in recent years.
M: What separates this year’s team from ones you covered?
R: Well I think if you look at the team two years ago, it was coach Cutts’ first year, he was the interim head coach. They were a pretty talented team but they really needed one or two more strong guards to contend. And I felt last year that they really got better in the guard position but they were really young in the post. And now I think this year they have depth both on the perimeter with some of the recruiting talent they brought in over the last two recruiting classes and they’ve got a lot of depth in the post. And I think that (their) recipe for success has been to get a lot of strong international post players and complement that with really talented perimeter players that fit coach Cutts’ style. And I think they’ve done that and I think that you’re bound to see a pretty good year this season.
M: Where do you believe this team’s greatest strengths lie?
R: Well, you have to look at the players. Number one: this team has tasted success. Last year there was a lot they had built on and they know how to win now. You couldn’t say that two years ago. But I think you have to look at two players in (forward) Taylor Johns and (guard) Jaylen Bland. These are two players that — Johns being a post player and Bland being a shooting guard — have completely different skillsets that complement each other so, so well. But if you look outside their talent and ability level, those two — alongside the other senior, Steven Jones — have really taken some leadership upon themselves to hold this team accountable for practicing well and holds them accountable off the court and will do the same when games come along.
M: Where can the Highlanders stand to improve?
R: I don’t know if there’s one key need for improvement, I think every team has a lot of needs right now and a lot of areas to improve. But I do think that the biggest challenge that they face is molding together a team with a lot of new faces. There (are) only five guys back from last season and all five of those guys are very strong players. They’ve added a lot of players, they have fifteen total on their roster so I saw 10 new players at practice today. And so I think their biggest challenge is going to be: will they play as well together this season as they did last year? With the new faces, the new roles and new personalities, how will they mesh it all together at the end of the day? And that’s the coaching staff’s job as well as those seniors to make it happen.
M: You’ve recently met with head coach Dennis Cutts, what is your opinion of his coaching philosophy?
R: You know, every leader leads from top-down. So, whatever the personality of the leader is, is generally what leaks down to the players where the players are an extension of the coach. And so if you have coach with the right personality who’s a high character guy, who just rolls up his sleeves and goes to work you’re gonna have all your players doing the same thing. And I think they (UCR) have got their guys doing everything in that area (where) they’d like them to be and I believe coach Cutts is doing it the right way.
M: How about his offensive system?
R: Cutts’ offensive system is neat in the sense that he gives his players a lot of freedom. Yet at the same time he doesn’t allow them to do whatever they want within that freedom. There are rules within the freedom and I think his players use their abilities the best that they possibly can but he has them reigned in well enough where he’s not allowing them to use abilities they don’t have.
M: What were a few things you noticed in your time at practice?
R: It was an extremely spirited practice. And I think that the excitement that they had at practice shows the optimism they have for the season. They have worked extraordinarily hard and people on campus should be proud of the team that they have. No matter what their win-loss record is, these players are working hard to represent UC Riverside. Bland and Johns are going to get a ton of the credit but I think that Robert Boezeman is a guy that works really hard in practice, Alex Larson is returning in the post — he did a lot of great things last year as a freshman — and then they have a whole slew of talented players. Particularly, junior college transfers and a couple of freshmen as well that I think are going to make a real splash to make this team pretty good this season.
M: How do you think UCR will fare against the top teams this season?
R: Well, you’ve got to remember they beat UC Irvine last year (70-63 on February 14, 2015). So they are certainly capable of beating the best team in the league. The unique thing about (this year’s) preseason poll results and the All-Conference team is that there (are) only six players on the media All-Conference team. Two of them play for UC Irvine, who they ranked number one. Two of the other four (Bland and Johns) play for UC Riverside and they ranked them number five. So, if I’m the players for UC Riverside I’m feeling a bit slighted and using it as motivation that they don’t think our team is good enough to finish in the top three.
M: How good do Jaylen Bland and Taylor Johns have to be in order for the Highlanders to be considered serious contenders for a conference title come March?
R: I think, just like we talked about with the women’s team, it’s a matter of respect. And I think the media is voting on this and is looking at win-loss records and the tradition of the program over recent years. Well, UC Riverside has not had a winning record in a few years. So, the media is looking at, “well they have a couple great players, but they haven’t proven anything from a win-loss perspective.” So, until they do that, they are not going to get the respect they deserve. And so, this is just them on the way to the mountaintop. They’re rising to the top of the mountain and they’ll have to continue beating down the door, continue winning close games and continue building their program in order to get that respect in the future.
M: Could you see any X-Factors emerging from this squad?
R: Well, I think Larsson is really going to have a great sophomore year. Larsson was a freshman last year and he is very strong, he’s put on 10 pounds of bulk this summer. Just pure muscle and I think he’s such an extremely hard worker that you’re gonna see a lot more production inside the post and you also have to understand that Steven Jones was the starting point guard for much of last season before he broke a bone in his foot. He’s back and healthy and I think he’s going to have a major impact on the success of the team. And it remains to be seen what we see from the incoming players but, trust me, there is a lot of talent on this team.
M: So, considering all that, where does this team stand among the conference come year’s end?
R: That’s a tough question and I don’t know if I can give you a straight up answer because so much of it depends on health. Are they (UCR) going to remain healthy? Are other teams in the league going to be healthy? A lot of times, the best team doesn’t always win the league. A lot of times it’s who is healthy at the end of the season and who is peaking at the right time of year. So I think a lot of that will depend on how well they gel together as a team and how healthy they can be by the end of the year.
M: So, no bold predictions from you at this time?
R: I would be really shocked if they didn’t finish in the top five. I would be very surprised.