Chima Moneke arrived late to the dance, by way of Nigeria, Australia and Nebraska, and by his own admission.
Sometimes he is amazed at how far he has traveled to get here. Other times he peers into the future and sees a grander stage, another NCAA Tournament berth for UC Davis and an NBA career.
That shining moment – the Aggies’ first tourney appearance – is the delicious taste that clings to the tongue. Not even the lopsided loss to powerhouse Kansas in Tulsa, Okla., ruined the experience.
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But how bad could it be? Actor Rob Lowe sat in the audience, in the middle of the UCD section, cheering the Aggies and posing for photos. Even the emotional post-game scene was part celebration, part funeral.
“Darius (Graham) and Coach (Jim) Les embraced for like two minutes on the court,” Moneke recalled. “Everybody was crying in the locker room. That was a tough one, but it was a great ride. March Madness really changed my dreams into realistic goals. And this is going to be the biggest year of my life.”
The UCD team that plays Sacramento State on Tuesday night in their second annual meeting at Golden 1 Center will have a distinctly different look. Eight players from the squad that captured the Big West tournament and earned the NCAA bid have graduated and moved on with their lives, among them Graham, Brynton Lemar and J.T. Adenrele.
Moneke, the bouncy, 6-foot-6 senior forward, is the only returning starter, and even he has altered his appearance. Though he loves the attention, he ditched the rectangular sports glasses that resemble swim goggles, opting instead for larger, more conventional lenses. He wants all eyes directed at his expanded skill set.
“I’m not a perfect player,” said Moneke, “and there’s nothing I don’t want to get better at. On the team we had last year, I didn’t do everything that I have in my arsenal. Over the summer, we worked on adding a lot of things. Coach is letting me bring the ball up, initiate the offense, shoot 3s, make plays for my teammates when I get double-teamed. The post is where I butter my bread, so you’ll still see me banging around down low, too.”
The fifth-year senior, who is easily the most athletic player in the program’s history, is no longer a secret. Similar to his close friend Keelan Doss, the Aggies wide receiver and NFL prospect who was ignored by major colleges, Moneke was virtually undercover before he arrived at UCD.
Born in Nigeria to career diplomats, he spent his teen years in Canberra, Australia, competing against Dante Exum and Ben Simmons, but failed to attract the attention of any major college recruiters. Frustrated, he e-mailed an estimated 300 Division I schools and heard back only from Alaska-Anchorage.
“I was so discouraged, I was ready to stop playing,” he said.
Instead he enrolled at a community college in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he caught the attention of Les – who was recruiting another prospect at a summer showcase – and was quickly offered a scholarship. After red-shirting for a year, Moneke slid into the starting lineup and anchored the team that shocked UC Irvine in the conference tournament and secured a trip to Dayton, Ohio, for an NCAA Tournament play-in game.
And, no, he is no longer a hidden gem. Entering his senior season, Moneke is a preseason Big West Player of the Year selection, an All-Mid Major choice, and is on the Lute Olson and Lou Henson watch list for the national mid-major player of the year.
Then, as now, the communications major is a dynamic, almost acrobatic performer. Though he would have been characterized as a “tweener” in previous eras – too short to excel at power forward and lacking conventional skills at small forward – today’s “positionless” game plays to his strengths.
He utilizes his quickness and muscular 223-pound frame to grab rebounds and score inside, capitalizes on his speed to score in transition and, more recently, relies on a diversified attack that forces opponents into more complicated game-planning.
“It’s obvious when you watch Chima that he’s added to his game,” Les said. “He’s a better ballhandler, a better perimeter scorer, and that makes him such a tough cover because he can play out on the floor and make plays off the dribble. If you play off him, he’s been making 3s. The other thing is, because he gets so much attention in the post, when he gets double-teamed, he is a really good passer out of the post.”
Yet Les wants more. A lot more. He believes Moneke, who is averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds through three games, can be a more focused defender and a more dominant all-around player; his ideal stat line consists of 38 points and 17 rebounds.
“Chima has that kind of talent,” the coach adds.
Moneke certainly agrees and, given his history, predicts that he will eclipse last year’s performance. He craves one final shot at the Jayhawks or one of the nation’s other elite programs, last year’s blowout tournament loss notwithstanding.
“Before the buzzer went off, seeing all our seniors get emotional, that was the moment,” he said, speaking in a soft, wistful tone. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ Now people know who we are, what we did, and I am super proud of that. When I graduate in March and leave here, I want to be able to look back at Davis, look at the players, the culture we created, and know we are in good hands. I want Davis to stay relevant and continue to get better.”
That tournament taste, it isn’t going away.
“We don’t have the connectivity we had with all the new guys,” Les continued, “or the intangibles we had last year, the ability to respond and adjust. But if we can get those two things, I’ll be shocked if we are not in the hunt again.”