Coming off a tough season, UC Davis is looking to put up some much better numbers to show everyone that they are not the league doormat that people have come to expect them to be since their move up to Division I basketball. With a clean bill of health, an experienced and driven coach and a new Notre Dame transfer, the Aggies could prove to be the Big West surprise that no one expected.
For that dream to become reality, though, they will have to look to their coach of six years, Gary Stewart, for his unique leadership. Stewart has held such positions as UCSB assistant coach, as well as director of basketball services for UCLA. He is one of the biggest driving forces behind the team’s recent transition and is looking to make a big impact on the Big West soon.
“I’m excited,” Stewart said. “We’re better than we ever have been, a lot more well-rounded. We’ve definitely improved significantly already.”
To help Stewart, UC Davis has also brought in sophomore guard Joe Harden, a Notre Dame transfer who currently leads the team with 15.2 points per game, including a 20 point, 12 rebound performance against the Loyola Greyhounds.
“I think I bring the toughness we needed and help on both sides of the court,” Harden said. “I play as hard as I can to have success.”
And at 6’8″, 210 pounds, the toughness that Harden brings is no joke.
“It’s great to have size like that on the perimeter,” Stewart said. “He is an excellent inside out player and a great rebounder, as well as a fierce competitor. I think he’ll improve on shooting a lot, too, from what I’ve seen in practice.”
Bringing up the ball with Harden is point guard and sophomore Mark Payne, whose unselfish play is good for an average 5 assists per game to go along with 10.9 points.
“I look to create for others and get others involved. That, plus my competitiveness, are the most beneficial for the team,” Payne said.
This year could be a big one for Payne as well, who has worked hard in the offseason to prepare to follow up his performance last year, which ended in his being named National Mid-Major Freshman of the Year.
“I think I am a lot more mature this year. Last year I was so overwhelmed with being able to play and contribute, this year I am more focused on winning,” Payne said. “I have gotten much stronger and am in much better shape than I was last year, which has been really good for me so far this year.”
Many things have been very good for the Aggies so far this year. They average double-digit victory margins in their wins and are already on pace to win many more games than they did last year. According to senior guard Vince Oliver, that is in no small part to Coach Stewart and the atmosphere of success that he brings to the program.
“Coach Stewart demands the best out of his players,” Oliver said. “This is definitely a good thing because he challenges us in practice every single day and makes practice harder than the games, so that when the tough game situations come around, we are prepared for them.”
Harden and Payne both agree.
“Coach Stewart is a very good coach, and basketball is a huge part of his life,” Payne said. “When he is not watching film on us, he is watching the NBA or other college games. He is very competitive and hates to lose.”
“He’s really organized,” Harden said. “He has put in a new offense and is working on getting us all on the same page, and I think he makes everyone play their best.”
With a coach that demands success and players who buy into that attitude, UC Davis is looking to turn some heads this season. Coach Stewart certainly hopes so.
“I’d like to establish Davis as the best in the Big West at some point,” Stewart said. “But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It’s important for us to just to keep getting better and better.”
Come Jan. 22 in Davis, they will test their mettle against UCSB, and Joe Harden sums up their goals for this season in a succinct manner.
“Just watch out, I hope.”