By Mark Gregory
All the hype in the Chicago area this week has been around Northwestern punching its first ever ticket to the NCAA tournament.
There is another team, however, that is also making its first trip to the tournament and it also has a local tie.
Jim Les, who played high school basketball at Notre Dame College Prep and is the brother of Dons coach Tom Les, took the UC Davis men’s team into the dance for the first time and earned a 67-63 win over NC Central in a First Four contest.
“It’s special,” Les said if the Aggies’ win. “I’ve said this, our guys grew up as little hoopers dreaming about playing and having this opportunity. And so it’s special to be here. And we’re just going to continue to fight, to keep this story going. And this team, with five seniors, when it does come to an end, this team is not going to be able to play together again. And that bond and that resiliency to keep that going and keep this group together is what really motivates them, I think.
“So to me when that ball goes up on Friday, I’m not going to be thinking about what seeds — we’re going to be playing basketball, competing at basketball. And, like I said, the chips will fall where they may. But we’re glad to be here, but we’re not satisfied by any means.”
That game Friday will be at 5:50 p.m. when No. 16 seed UC Davis takes on No. 1 Kansas.
There has never been a No. 16 seed that beat a No. 1 seed in tournament history.
“These guys have shown competitive greatness all year. It starts in practice. They have really good habits. They work hard. They work together. They hold each other accountable, which is special,” Les said. “But we also like our competitiveness, and feel like in a one-game situation, we’re going to come, we’re going to play hard, we’re going to compete and let the chips fall where they may. So we’re excited for this opportunity. And we’ll concede nothing. But we’ll be ready.”
No matter who they are playing or what the outcome is, Les said the Aggies, which include redshirt freshman Joe Mooney from Notre Dame, are ready to compete.
“I think this group is really excited about this opportunity. But I don’t get a sense that the moment’s too big for them,” Les said. “And we’ve talked about since last October, of we’re not looking back. We’re not looking forward, we’re staying in the moment and we’re going through the process. And the process is just our possession-by-possession approach and being the best we can be.
“These guys, they don’t play for themselves. They play for each other. They have a really tight bond. It’s one of the closest teams I’ve ever been around, whether I was playing or coaching. And they truly feel disappointed if it’s their responsibility to help their teammate and they’re late or they don’t get there. There’s a genuine feeling of – I let my guy down, I let my brother down. And that’s unique and hard to find these days.”
For Les, this is the second time he has taken a program to its first NCAA tournament.
In 2005-05, Les took his alma mater Bradley to the tournament, where it reached the Sweet 16. He coached at Bradley from 2001 until 2011 and has been at UC Davis since.
“I think (my experience with Bradley) helped me in the perspective of just getting them ready for what’s coming. And even we talked about that Saturday. We talked about that Sunday. If I can give them a snapshot of what they’re going to experience and so they can kind of mentally prepare so they’re not surprised.”
Before coaching, Les was a standout at Notre Dame and at Bradley and was the 70th overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, selected in the third round by the Atlanta Hawks. He played in the NBA for eight years.
“I think my greater value to them is having been a player and all the things I’ve experienced just helping them deal with their mindset,” he said. “I tell them all the time there isn’t anything I didn’t experience from being a guy that came off the bench the last guy on the bench to being a starter to being the leading scorer to being the guy who scored the least. I’ve had injuries. I had moments where I thought I was never going to miss. I had moments where I thought I was never going to make one again. To me that’s my value to them because they all go through those journeys along the way during a college career.
“And when things are going great, they don’t necessarily need our staff as much. But it’s when things aren’t going as well that they turn to you and look for answers, and we want to make sure we are able to provide them and navigate them through those tough times. But I’ll also add that I’ve got some really smart kids. So I’m not sure back in the day I would have got into UC Davis, so they’re a lot smarter than their coach. So I’ve got to navigate that. And I have a lot of coaching friends around the country.”
While Niles may be home, Les has made the Sacramento area his home since playing the better part of his career with the Kings as well as coach with the Sacramento Monarchs of the WNBA.
“My wife and I fell in love with the Sacramento region a long time ago and developed some really strong ties with the community, established some really good friends that we consider family,” Les said. “And to have the opportunity to come back and be back and live and work in that area was special.”
Les followed his son, Tyler, to UC Davis as Tyler was recruited out of Peoria Notre Dame High School.
“I have an easy sell when I sit in a living room of a recruit, because we were living in Illinois at the time. Tyler is being recruited by a number of schools,” Jim Les said. “And lo and behold UC Davis walks into the picture. Jodi and I knew about it, but we didn’t really know about UC Davis. So we as parents — he’s our oldest, he’s our firstborn. We’re starting to do our research we’re thinking, wow, this is an unbelievable university? And here we are 1700 miles away and we send Tyler, our oldest, off to school into California. And so it’s easy to sit in front of parents and say, you know what, I’m not asking you to do anything that I didn’t do.
“I’m not here at UC Davis selling UC Davis because now it’s my job; I did the research. I sat on your side of the table and looked at UC Davis from a parent’s perspective, where my son was going to be, the environment he was going to grow up into some huge formative years, and the people he was going to be around and UC Davis is truly special in all those areas. And it was — we gave him his blessing and he never looked back. And lo and behold there was a greater plan, and I was blessed a year later to come and coach him and have that opportunity.”