Mike Magpayo’s tenure as head coach of the University of California, Riverside (UCR) men’s basketball team has brought a strong culture change to the organization as the program hopes to build off of a year that ended strongly. The Highlanders finished the 2024 season 10-10 in conference play, but won eight of their final 11 games. Their season ended in the quarterfinals of the Big West Championship, falling to eventual winners, Long Beach State University, 86-67.

Magpayo will enter his fifth season as full-time head coach in 2024-2025, as he hopes to bring UCR their first men’s basketball Big West Championship in the school’s history. There’s a lot to be optimistic about for Highlander fans, as the majority of UCR’s young core will return next season. 

Reigning Big West Freshman of the Year, Barrington Hargress, enters next season as one of the league’s best guards, who can create his own shot while playmaking for others around him. Magpayo had high praise for the Inglewood native, saying, “He’s one of the best point guards in the country at a mid-major,” as he expects him to take on a bigger role next season. Hargress averaged 12.6 points and four-and-a-half assists per game last year, ranking ninth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio. 

Redshirt freshman, Kaleb Smith, is another young player hoping to take on a bigger role next season. In the final nine games of last year, Smith put up 13.6 points per game and saw his minutes skyrocket when compared to the beginning of the season. Magpayo praised Smith’s willingness to be coachable: “He was playing about five minutes [per] game early in the year…but he was so coachable. He had laser focus [and] was looking me in the eyes. It was really cool to see his growth, I mean by the end of the year I couldn’t take him out of the game.” Smith played multiple 30+ minute games in the latter half of the season, and has put on some weight according to coach. “I’ve been really impressed with Kaleb Smith this Spring…he’s put on 16 pounds and I think he’s grown an inch … he’s a player.”

Kaleb Smith courtesy of Apollo_The Highlander

Two more key players returning for the Highlanders include sophomores Isaiah Moses and Nate Pickens. These core guards started in the majority of games last season for Magpayo, and he believes their roles could increase moving forward: “These guys got to play so much, all of them got to play 30 to 35 minute games at some point [in the year]…and I think all these guys are going to make a jump.” 

Key players the Highlanders will lose include graduate student Kyle Owens and senior Wil Tattersall. Ben Griscti also won’t return, as he signed a professional contract overseas in Australia.

Kyle Owens courtesy Apollo_The Highlander

Magpayo also detailed his relationship with Erik Spoelstra, and how he’s been a mentor to him on and off the court. “He’s so humble … he’s always trying to learn from others, trying to learn from me … he loves basketball and is fully enthralled about the game.” Spoelstra has been the head coach of the Miami Heat for 16 seasons, and is a two-time NBA Champion at the helm. Players he has coached include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo. Magpayo also admired his coaching style, sharing, “His teams are always gritty, highly competitive, and they develop that in the preseason … and the Heat are going to be [amongst] the most conditioned teams [in the league].” 

Erik Spoelstra and Mike Magpayo were able to connect via the Asian Coaches Association. Magpayo has been the president of the association since 2011, and is also the first ever full Asian American head coach for a Division I men’s basketball program. Spoelstra is half Filipino, and the first ever Asian American head coach to win an NBA Title. 

Another key ingredient in the development of UCR’s basketball program has been the incredible work of athletic director Wesley Mallette. Magpayo nicknamed him “Ted Lasso” a few years ago, perhaps a nod to his great charisma and leadership abilities. Mallette brought UCR out of a threat to be terminated from NCAA Division I Athletics, and was also named amongst the “100 Most Impactful People in Men’s College Basketball” by Silver Waves Media in 2024. “I have the best mid-major athletic director in the country, and I really believe that,” Magpayo said regarding Wesley Mallette. “Wes and I are very aligned and we’re always communicating…and you’re not seeing coaches leave here either. Coaches, staff, and administration stay here for many years because I believe everyone enjoys working for this great leader.” 

Magpayo has high hopes for the 2024-2025 season, and basketball couldn’t come soon enough. “We have a chance to contend for [the Big West Championship]…and [I] couldn’t be more excited about this group.”