A suspension, a big shot and a viral dance: How UC Davis basketball stole the spotlight

OK, TJ Shorts II, let’s dance. Keep replaying those videos of your deciding 3-pointer, of your coach’s hip-hop moves that went viral, of the Aggies’ postgame eruption after that wildly improbable double-overtime victory last Saturday at Long Beach State.

 

Opinion

You can always recharge or replace the battery on your cellphone, but it might not be so easy to replicate the amount of love – and exposure – the UC Davis basketball program has generated throughout the week.

SportsCenter into the wee hours Sunday. Twitter and Instagram postings by the thousands. Kyle Kuzma, a Laker no less, sending out an LOL to Aggies coach Jim Les, a former King.

“That was pretty cool,” Shorts said after Monday’s practice. “It’s just been so exciting. I’ve watched those final minutes on my phone 100 times or so and it never gets old.”

The Aggies arrived on the 49ers’ campus that day with the best record in the Big West Conference but without their best player. Senior forward Chima Moneke, the All-America candidate who is averaging 18.4 points and 9.6 rebounds, was suspended indefinitely earlier Saturday for violating the team’s conduct policy. The matter is under review by the university and there is no definitive timetable for a resolution.

Yet if the Aggies were shaken by the abrupt turn of events, it wasn’t apparent against the 49ers. UCD starters Siler Schneider, Garrison Goode and AJ John had all fouled out before Joe Mooney inbounded the ball, Rogers Printup led a streaking Shorts with a perfect bounce pass and the junior college transfer rose and launched the 25-foot game-winner with 1.9 seconds remaining.

When the final buzzer went off, the Aggies went nuts. The players hugged, high-fived and danced. Les skipped back toward midcourt, punched the air, then joined the circle and showed off a few of his own moves.

Shorts, who finished with 31 points, seven assists and four steals, is taking credit for his coach’s sense of rhythm, too. That TJ doesn’t miss a beat. He dances during warmups, dances in the weight room, dances on the sidelines. “I taught coach those moves,” he said, with a grin. “We’re calling it, ‘The Les.’ 

Les, 54, is hearing from friends, former NBA teammates, relatives, among them his two daughters who delivered a scathing critique.

“They’re killing me,” he said with a laugh. “Next time I gotta check and make sure the cameras are off.”

But back to Shorts. This all started with the junior transfer from Saddleback College. If Moneke is the star, the 5-foot-9 point guard is both a pleasant surprise and an indispensable part of the program. Months removed from UCD’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, the overriding question entering the season was this: Who replaces Darius Graham, the heady floor leader who orchestrated the Aggies’ ascension these past few years?

Les had been following Shorts’ high school and junior college exploits closely, as it turns out, and was impressed with his recruit’s combination of speed, hesitation moves, ballhandling, passing and disruptive defense.

“The only question was how quickly was TJ going to adapt to Division I basketball, to adapt to our system and become our quarterback,” Les said. “I found myself early in the year overcoaching. You can overcook it sometimes. I put him in too many sets. Finally, we’ve adjusted to the point where we put the ball in his hands, put guys in spots around him and let him go.”

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Concerns about Shorts’ erratic perimeter shooting also are diminishing. The Aggies’ leader in assists (4.0) and steals (1.9), he is averaging 13.9 points, shooting 53 percent overall, 36.8 percent beyond the arc, and improving by the week.

“My range has always been something I have had to work on,” Shorts said. “Coming here to Coach Les, him being a great NBA shooter, has helped me fix my shot. The first thing is, I wasn’t extending my arm all the way and not following through. He showed clips of me short-arming shots. The second thing is that he told me to use my base more. I wouldn’t bend my legs a lot of times. We worked on it all summer, and those two little tips have helped a lot.”

 

Shorts is another of those chippy undersize guards who refuse to let a lack of stature dictate their career arc. As he sits in the empty stands in the Pavilion – where the Aggies’ 19-game winning streak will be tested by Big West co-leader UC Santa Barbara on Thursday – he recites a checklist of his benefits: Large hands and large feet. Speed that enables him to run between the baselines in three to four seconds. Pass-first point guard instincts and leadership skills. The ability to dunk with either hand.

With a soft smile and a concession speech – he still holds out hope that he will grow taller – he also reveals a family trait: a playful sense of humor.

“You should talk to my mom,” he offers, shaking his head. “Her name is Darlene Long. My father’s name is Timothy Shorts. She goes by Long-Shorts.”

Darlene Long-Shorts, an insurance agent who says her catchy name is easy for clients to remember, happens to be all of 4-foot-11 and is more than willing to assume responsibility for her son’s stature.

“But that’s why TJ is such a diligent person, such a hard worker,” she said. “He is one of those children who is on top of everything. And once he decided that was basketball, he would be in the gym at 6 a.m., never miss a day.”

But about that dance. For Long-Shorts, the long and short of it sounds pretty similar to everyone else associated with the Aggies.

“I keep looking at social media,” she said. “That dance was awesome. I told Timothy, ‘Coach Les is going to be famous for that. That will never be forgotten.’ 

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