After this week’s two victories over Delaware State and Lamar, the UC Riverside men’s basketball team currently sits at 4-2 through their first six games of the regular season and this is the team’s best five-game start since the 2009-10 campaign.
Sure, it’s not the largest of sample sizes and the near-.500 record isn’t mind-blowing, but here’s the catch: they’ve done it all without the help of their best player, forward Taylor Johns.
For all the success that was expected from men’s basketball this season, Johns — who has been out since the second game of the season due to an undisclosed violation of team rules — was expected to be the catalyst. Yet, he continues to sit and the team continues to find ways to win.
Quite decisively, too, I should add.
Even dating back to preseason, each of the Highlanders’ victories have come by way of double digits, a 100-68 victory in the season opener being the largest margin and a 77-63 win over Santa Clara being the smallest.
Sure, they’d love to have Johns back in the lineup, but they aren’t losing their footing in his absence either, with each game seemingly providing a platform for another player to emerge.
In the November 19 victory over Santa Clara, it was forward Secean Johnson who tied standout guard Jaylen Bland for the team lead in points with 20, also adding seven rebounds and going 2-3 from beyond the arc. As Bland put it to me after that game, “it’s all about that next man [stepping] up.”
In the win against Delaware State, we saw that mentality take shape once again. This time it was sixth man Gentrey Thomas who made an efficient seven of ten shot attempts en route to 16 points, six boards and a team-high four steals.
Yet, for as great as the season is going now, it can only get better when Johns returns. The Highlanders’ two losses on the year can attest to that.
First, a one point loss to San Francisco after the Dons surged back with a 6-0 run in the game’s waning minutes to close a five-point margin. And, most recently, an 87-81 loss to a previously winless Rice team who came in being outscored by an average of 20 points per game.
Johns or not, these are games that UCR should win. Yet, they are also reflective of a team that lacks the on-court stability and comfort that comes with having your best player on the floor.
What Johns flashed in his lone appearance of the year against William Jessup was an ability to take over a game if need be and, more importantly, his presence allowed every player to settle into their respective roles.
Johns and Bland tied for a team-high 23 points that game, with Bland netting five from three-point range and adding three steals on the defensive end. Johns contributed with a massive all-around line including 11 boards, four assists, three blocks and a steal, while two other Highlanders — Thomas (12) and Johnson (11) — managed to score in double figures.
The hope is that this type of all-around contribution is more of what’s to come once he returns. But, until he does, this team will continue to valiantly keep its stride.