- The Highlanders need Taylor Johns … but they won’t get him as the senior has been permanently dismissed from the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules. In the wake of this, a greater burden is now on rest of the roster to carry the offensive load, which is a task that proved difficult in Thursday’s 65-55 loss to UC Santa Barbara. Ironically, the man thrusted into an expanded role in Johns’ absence — third-year transfer Secean Johnson — more than carried his weight on the evening, delivering an Johns-esque 21-point, 10-rebound performance. However, the rest of the team fell flat, combining for a mere 34 points on a meager 30 percent clip in the matchup. The most glaring issue with the team offensively was overall stagnation. Without Johns drawing attention from defenders down low, UCR was forced to swing the ball along the perimeter, often finding themselves in late-shot clock situations before forcing a poor shot up. Luckily the team has had a week between games to readjust their “post-Johns” offensive strategy, hopefully in an attempt to better manufacture open looks.
- The roster is stacked with talented guards … After a 2014-15 season in which the team never truly recovered once starting point guard, Steven Jones, went down with injury, adding guard depth became a priority in the offseason. The effort to do so was a success and coach Dennis Cutts got the opportunity to fully display UCR’s backcourt depth on Thursday. With Johns out, Cutts frequently opted for three-guard lineups against UCSB — a contrast to the big man-heavy rotations he frequented early in the season. This change showed its benefits as the Highlanders consistently had capable ball handlers to lead the offense upcourt and break the press while their halfcourt offense often benefited by having strong shooters along the perimeter. Though, of course as mentioned above, converting on those proved to be a greater issue.
- Menno Dykstra has loads of potential … At the start of the season, the excitement for seven-foot freshman center, Menno Dykstra, was quite palpable around the program and thus far, he has done little to disappoint. Dykstra’s growth into a meaningful role has been gradual but the past couple weeks have seen him get crucial minutes, oftentimes being the first man off the bench. WIth Dykstra in the game, the Highlanders’ lineup gains not merely an immediate injection of length but a player who is able to astutely utilize it by contesting shots and avoiding frequent fouls. Admittedly there is still progression to be made with Dykstra, particularly in the areas of strength and offensive fluidity, but his combination of length, floor vision and ability to run the floor have been a major plus for the UCR men all season and offer a glimpse of a promising future.
- This team is fun to watch … Whether it’s one of the bigs leading the break, a guard breaking up an opponent’s pass inside, a flurry of showy, pinpoint passes in the halfcourt or — as is most often the case — all of the above, the UCR women’s basketball team rarely fails to entertain. This was indeed the case on Thursday evening when the team put their highlight reel potential on display in their 83-58 victory over Long Beach State. The conference-leading Highlanders were energetic from the start, frequently dropping nifty passes inside for backdoor cutters and finding one another with ease in transition. These women love to play together and it is made ever-apparent out on the hardwood.
- The Highlanders thrive off their defense … and Thursday’s win was a brilliant display of this. Not only did the Highlanders hold the conference’s third-highest scoring team to four points below their season average but they they managed 22 points off of 19 forced turnovers. Similarly, in Saturday’s win over UC Davis, the team forced 18 Aggie turnovers and converted those into 23 points. This has consistently been the formula for the Highlanders in a season where they’re averaging an astounding 9.2 steals per game as a team and forcing a whopping 17.1 turnovers per contest. What makes their consistency even more remarkable is that it isn’t a mere one or two “energy” players who contribute on this end but rather a collective effort. More often than not, you’ll find the guards inside disrupting passing lanes or blocking shots down low and, by contrast, bigs can be found scrambling at half court for loose balls. Their defensive effort is the epitome of tenacious.
- The team possesses immense depth … Even with just seven players available to play, the Highlanders have managed to extend their undefeated conference streak to 12 games. And while a majority of these victories have coincided with some exceptional performances from stars Brittany Crain and Rejane Verin, the team has equally come to expect the emergence of their role players on any given night. In this past week’s contests, it has been guards Simone Decoud and Michelle Curry stepping up, with both managing two consecutive double-digit performances. Also notable is forward Inara Nyingifa, who strung together an impactful 10-point, two-block and two-steal performance in the win over LBSU. In truth, the Highlanders would love to have their full roster back intact, but they have nevertheless proven that even an exceedingly short rotation is a minor speed bump on their path to an undeniably memorable season.