Men’s basketball has plenty to prove this week

Secean Johnsons (No. 20) pushes his defenders over as he makes a run for the bastket.
Secean Johnsons (No. 20) pushes his defenders over as he makes a run for the bastket.

The UC Riverside men’s basketball team beat CSU Northridge, 75-72, on Saturday, Jan. 16. This was the Highlanders’ first win of conference play and there is no doubt that it was much needed. After entering the conference season already on the heels of a two-game losing streak, the Highlanders extended that out to five games in rapid fashion. At the start of Big West play, UCR lost a 20-point lead whilst falling to a beatable opponent in CSU Fullerton, before suffering decisive defeats at the hands of Hawaii and UC Irvine — the first-and second-ranked teams in the conference, mind you — just seven days later.

Finally, they are able to say they have a win: A victory over the conference’s last-ranked Northridge team, but a win nonetheless and a 1-3 conference record looks immensely more eye-pleasing than 0-4. Now, with matchups against second-to-last ranked UC Davis and a formidable-but-beatable Long Beach State upcoming, UCR must take this week’s two-game slate to take a streak in the opposite direction.

In truth, the Davis matchup should be a cakewalk. Since losing their star point guard of a year ago in Corey Hawkins, the Aggies have struggled to find much of any consistency in the scoring department and this is proven by the numbers. The team’s leader in points per game (Josh Fox, 13.0) is averaging the lowest amount for any such leader in the conference and the team is dead last in points scored on the season. This is something that should fall into UCR’s hands on Thursday. As we’ve come to learn this season, even the seemingly surest wins are not for certain.

For the Highlanders to earn a victory, it will have to start with their execution on offense. In the losses to Irvine and Hawaii, UCR’s offense looked stagnant for stretches. Ball movement was repeatedly replaced by “hero ball” and the end result was often an ill-advised shot. To counter this, the Highlanders must emphasize that the wings and bigs find open spots when off the ball and that the ball-handler look to facilitate to the open shooter. The team has also gotten away from their screen-and-roll offense as of late and reimplementing this against a Davis team that struggles protecting the rim could prove crucial.

Long Beach State will pose a much tougher challenge. The Highlanders have struggled to contain guard speed all season and the 49ers so happen to have the most dynamic backcourt in the conference led by Justin Bibbins and Nick Faust. The two combine to average just under 30 points per game and have a knack for baiting defenses before finding the open shooter. Whoever is defending the two needs to be quick when fighting through screens and any help defenders must be prepared to rotate back to their man to prevent easy backdoor opportunities. This is easier said than done in the heat of a game, but if the Highlanders can manage to force Long Beach into difficult shot attempts whilst executing offense based on the points made above, a win could be all the more likely.

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