Things are difficult enough for a new college basketball coach. You’re getting to know your players, assembling a new staff, trying to figure out which lock each key opens, learning about your environment and its culture … the usual adjustment, in other words.

Now add the restrictions of COVID-19, which govern when you can play, when you can practice, what form those practices might take, and how you get to acquaint yourself with your players. And … oh, by the way, there’s a chance your program is going to be discontinued.

Such has been the double whammy at UC Riverside over the past three months. Both basketball teams have new head coaches, former Stanford All-American and WNBA All-Star Nicole Powell hired from Grand Canyon University to take over the women’s program in March and Mike Magpayo elevated from lead assistant to head coach in July when David Patrick resigned to become Eric Musselman’s associate head coach at Arkansas.

When a document from the university’s Budget Advisory Committee surfaced in late August listing ways to make up for a COVID-driven budget deficit, and the elimination of the entire UCR athletic department was at the top of the list of suggestions, things got serious. The resulting uproar caused Chancellor Kim Wilcox to form a 12-person “working group” to examine the situation and possible solutions, with its report due Feb. 1.

In the meantime, followed up and what had been an Inland Empire story became a national story about the school willing to whack its entire program, not just pieces of it.

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It’s not hard to imagine the chill that can have on recruiting, but Magpayo said that even after the news came out two players let him know they remained committed to the school. Both have signed letters of intent with UCR: Virginia high school guard Kobe Jerome, the younger brother of former University of Virginia (and now Oklahoma City Thunder) guard Ty Jerome, and Jeffrey Ofoedu, a 6-foot-5 guard from Melbourne, Australia.

“People believe and have faith,” Magpayo said. “I mean, they all know the deal, they know the situation. … And they are still all in.

“It’s interesting, right? I’m not sure what it is, but they have faith and they’re super optimistic. Maybe it’s (because) I’m very optimistic, and I have a lot of belief and faith that UC Riverside and the Athletics Working Group are going to figure it out. I don’t think there’s any other way for me to operate.”

Magpayo said he told his staff to focus on the team that was on hand. Those players were part of a campaign via social media and teleconferencing to rally support for the program. That spurred enthusiasm, and so did getting back on campus and being able to start practicing in October.

The situations between the men’s and women’s teams are similar in some ways, different in others. Magpayo was Patrick’s associate head coach, and last year’s team tied a school Division I record for victories with 17, including wins in guarantee games at Nebraska and Fresno State, and ranked eighth in the nation in scoring defense (giving up 60.6 points per game, just behind Baylor and just ahead of Kansas). The Highlanders seemed to have a puncher’s chance going into a Big West Tournament that was never played.

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The women’s team was coming off a rough year, starting the previous summer when allegations surfaced that head coach John Margaritis had verbally and mentally abused his players. Margaritis stepped down in September, the team finished the 2019-20 season 8-22 under interim coach Seyram Bell, and Powell was hired in May after taking Grand Canyon to a 16-14 record and a second-place finish (10-6) in the WAC.

Powell was a three-time Naismith Trophy finalist as a player at Stanford, played 11 seasons in the WNBA (as well as winters in Europe) and was an assistant to Kelly Graves at Gonzaga for a year and Oregon for three (and yes, she was involved in the Ducks’ recruitment of Sabrina Ionescu). She took the UCR job because she said she was impressed by Athletic Director Tamica Smith Jones’ vision for the program.

When her hiring was announced, March 30, the pandemic was still in its early stages.

“No matter what position you’re in, or location, this has affected everybody at every level,” she said. “I don’t see this as, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is something so different.’ We’re all going through it, right?”

True, but not every school is threatening to liquidate an athletic program. Even there, Powell pointed out that her alma mater announced plans to cut 11 varsity sports (although that would still leave Stanford with 26, 11 more than UCR’s full program.)



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