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  • Fullerton Preview: Blue Ribbon


    1. UC Irvine
    2. Hawaii
    3. Long Beach State
    4. UC Davis
    5. Cal Poly
    6. Cal State Fullerton
    7. CSUN
    8. UC Santa Barbara
    9. UC Riverside


    LOCATION Fullerton, CA
    LAST SEASON 17-15 (.531)
    CONFERENCE RECORD 10-6 (3rd)
    NICKNAME Titans
    COLORS Navy Blue, Orange & White
    Titan Gym (4,000)
    COACH Dedrique Taylor (UC Davis ’97)
    RECORD AT SCHOOL 47-77 (4 years)
    CAREER RECORD 47-77 (4 years)
    ASSISTANTS John Smith (Dominican ‘94), Danny Sprinkle (Montana State ’00), Anthony Santos (Cal State Fullerton ’12)
    WINS (LAST 5 YRS.) 14-11-9-10-17
    RPI (LAST 5 YRS.) 270-285-315-289-278
    2016-17 FINISH Lost in CIT first round.

    With the score knotted in overtime, the 3-point shot was short. Way short. It hit the backboard, never touching the rim, falling right in the hands of UC Davis forward Chima Moneke. It happened so quickly that Fullerton’s defense didn’t have time to react, and Moneke went right back up, laying the ball in at the buzzer to send UC Davis to the Big West tournament championship game. That’s how close Fullerton was to playing for its first NCAA tournament bid since 2008. A deep shot. A quick put back. A disappointing 66-64 loss.

    “It stung,” Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor said, “but that loss is literally fueling what these guys are doing now.” Fullerton actually had much to celebrate. The Titans finished the regular season as one of the Big West’s hotter teams, winning nine of 11 to capture the tournament’s third seed. Despite the loss, they earned an invitation to the CIT, where they lost to Weber State in the first round.

    “I told them, out of 350-some-odd teams, there’s only about 100 playing at this time of year, and you’re one of them,” Taylor said. “We didn’t take advantage of the opportunity the best we could have, hosting a game like that in our gym, but it was a unique opportunity for us.” In April, Fullerton rewarded Taylor with a three-year contract extension with conditions for a fourth year in 2020-21. To Taylor, it showed the school’s administration likes the program’s direction, that better days are ahead.

    “That’s a huge vote of confidence in our program, and it helps on so many levels in terms of recruiting,” he said. “Nowadays, that’s the first question parents ask: ‘How long is your contract?’ They want to know.” Building off that momentum won’t be easy. Fullerton lost two significant pieces from last season: All-Big West guard Tre’ Coggins (17.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and a solid point guard in Lionheart Leslie (10.6 ppg, 2.4 apg), described among the “toughest dudes” Taylor has coached. What gives Taylor confidence is how Fullerton has responded from last season. Not long ago, he told his players to get away during the school’s first summer session. Go home. Relax. All but one chose to stay at Fullerton, trying to get a head start for this season.

    Despite its personnel losses, Fullerton has some solid building blocks in place. For the last two seasons, the Titans have produced the Big West’s Freshman of the Year. In 2016, guard Khalil Ahmad won the honor. Last season, forward Jackson Rowe did so. Both should play significant roles in 2017-18. Taylor said the 6-4 Ahmad (11.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.1 spg) is as talented and skilled as any player he’s had at Fullerton. The junior wing can score from all three levels and his versatility gives Taylor the option at playing him at shooting guard, small forward or even power forward.

    The 6-7 sophomore Rowe (10.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) was the Big West’s third-leading rebounder. Pretty much the only way he got the ball was if he grabbed it off the boards, but that suited Rowe just fine. He delivered 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a win over Cal Poly. Two weeks later he racked up eight points and 16 rebounds in a win over UC Riverside. “He’s a guy that kind of went under the radar,” Taylor said. “Not a lot of schools recruited him, and we were fortunate enough to get him. He’s big, strong and physical, and he plays with a motor.”

    Two 6-3 guards, sophomore Austen Awosika and junior Kyle Allman, should team in the backcourt. Last season, Awosika (6.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.8 apg) shot 54.6 percent from 2-point range. He might have had his best game in the CIT, posting nine points, nine rebounds and five assists against Weber State. The 6-3 Allman (10.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.1 apg) is long and athletic. Offensively, he can get to the rim. Defensively, Taylor believes he has the potential to be among the Big West’s best.

    Senior center Arkim Robertson (3.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg) last season averaged 14.4 minutes—mostly off the bench—but this season he has a chance to play a bigger role in the post. Offensively, the 6-9, 240-pound Robertson is raw, but he can impact the game with rebounding and rim protection. “He’s got to stay out of foul trouble,” Taylor said of Robertson, who last season committed an estimated 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes.

    A pair of 6-5 sophomore guards, Dwight Ramos (3.5 ppg) and Davon Clare (2.5 pph, 3.0 rpg), also return. Ramos is a shooter, while Clare is a facilitator and rebounder who collected four consecutive games with double-digit boards last winter. Walk-on Jamal Smith (1.3 ppg, 1.3 rpg), a 6-3 sophomore who is the son of assistant coach John Smith, adds backcourt depth. Fullerton adds seven newcomers—five freshmen and two junior-college transfers.

    A Midland, Tex., native, freshman Daniel Venzant last played at Aspire Academy in Arizona, where the 5-9 point guard suffered an ACL injury that will delay his transition to college. Landon Kirkwood , an athletic 6-4 combo guard from Brooklyn Center High in Brooklyn Park, Minn., could make an immediate defensive impact as a freshman. Gaber Ozegovic, a 6-5 freshman guard from Slovenia, is a confident playmaker in the Manu Ginobili mold, Taylor said. A 6-0 point guard, junior Ian Fox will be a walk-on in status but Taylor said he’s good enough to be on scholarship. Fox (14.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.4 apg) arrives from Fullerton College. Freshmen Josh Pitts and Yixiong “Johnny” Wang should give Fullerton a physical presence inside. A 6-10 forward, Pitts is raw offensively, but if “you come into the lane, he’s going to check you,” Taylor said of the San Antonio Memorial (Tex.) High product. At 6-9 and 240 pounds, Wang (2.7 ppg, 2.,1 rpg) had modest numbers at Santa Margarita (Calif.) High School but is as physical as any freshman Taylor has had at Fullerton. A 6-7 junior center, Dominik Heinzl (12.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) arrives from Laramie County Community College in Wyoming with what Taylor summarized as a “European game” around the rim. Heinzl is from the Czech Republic.

    Fullerton struggled offensively last season. The Titans shot 31.1 percent from 3-point range (326th nationally) and turned the ball over on 20.7 percent of their possessions (310th). That’s a concern for Taylor, especially considering he lost last season’s leading scorer in Coggins. At the same time, Taylor likes how his roster is constructed, not only for this season but for the future. Not long ago, he thought he’d have to build his program through transfers, which is fine to plug holes but perhaps not the best long-term solution.

    Instead, Fullerton is building through high school recruits, a proven method in the Big West. “We’re in a very unique situation, one that I didn’t foresee us being in in terms of recruiting as many high school kids as we’ve gotten,” Taylor said. “The ironic thing is, if you look at the teams that have won our conference since we’ve been in it, they’ve all done it with high school kids. We’re trying to follow suit.”