Last Chance to Dance
After Will Davis II’s first career dunk as a forward for UC Irvine, he was quickly told not to expect to be making too many more at the NCAA Division I level.
“I got a dunk my first game, and then, I remember Damian Starring, he was a junior my freshman year, he’s like, ‘Oh, you’re not gonna be getting dunks that easy. This isn’t high school!’” recalls Davis.
Davis, a Sacramento native, has long since proven his teammate wrong as he navigates through his final year at UC Irvine with the men’s basketball team.
During a game against Long Beach State earlier in the month, Davis leapt into the air and jammed the ball off an assist by Aaron Wright to give the Anteaters a 12-2 lead, capping off a dominant early run. Off of Davis’s season-high 22 points, UC Irvine narrowly edged out their rivals, 56-55, in a pivotal game to decide the conference standings in the Big West.
Posting game changing performances has become commonplace for Davis, who has grown to become an instrumental player in UC Irvine’s rotation, as the Anteaters (14-9, 7-2) aim for their second consecutive Big West regular season championship and the program’s first NCAA tournament berth.
During his sophomore year, Davis posted a career-high 32 points and 14 rebounds against High Point University at Crawford Court to lead UCI to its first post-season win since 1986.
“It was a cool experience, they said that’s where a lot of the older players used to play before the Bren was built.” said Davis.
Currently, Davis is averaging 11.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. His 25 blocked shots are second only to his teammate John Ryan’s 31. With each attempted field-goal he swats away or ball he jams through the rim on a dunk, the home crowd at UCI’s Bren Events Center often erupts in a frenzy, following with chants of “De-fence! De-fence!”
Due to his crowd pleasing plays and imposing stature, Davis has become one of the more recognizable students on campus. While playing pickup games at the Anteater Recreation Centers, Davis is often asked for pictures or greeted by students while walking down Ring Road.
“It’s not bad, I’ve never had anything like that happen before, so it’s kind of a cool experience,” said Davis.
Though flattered by the modest celebrity he has acquired on campus, this Sacramento native remains humble and is more often than surprised by the reactions students exhibit in his presence.
“Some people think I’m this huge superstar on the court and stuff like that. [When] I talk to them, they just relax, cause they’re [talking] to [me] directly in person. It’s not like I’m Kobe, or Lebron, or Kevin Durant, or somebody like that. I go to college just like them,” said Davis.
Standing at an imposing 6-foot-8-inches, Davis currently weighs in at 210 pounds for the season. His white elbow sleeves contour around his biceps, indicative of his finely honed physique. In spite of his hulking frame, he is soft-spoken and exudes a mild-mannered demeanor, reminiscent of his idol, Durant.
“I just love the way he plays,” said Davis. “Whenever he gets an interview he’s just really humble.”
Last year, the Anteaters claimed the regular season championship and secured the No. 1 seed headed into the Big West Tournament. Hopes were high that 2014 would finally be the year UCI secured a NCAA tournament berth, but the Anteaters were upset by seventh-seed Cal Poly.
“I think we just didn’t have the right attitude going into that game,” said Davis. “We won conference, so [we thought] conference tournament should be easy. Cal Poly just game to play more than we did.”
With a total pool of 68 college teams, the NCAA tournament is a single-elimination bracket held each spring to determine the top basketball team in the nation. To compete in the “Big Dance” would validate the fact that UCI’s basketball team ranks amongst the nations’ most elite.
As a player whose .527 field goal percentage ranks as second best in the conference, Davis’s roots in the game are a far outcry from the success he has continually throughout his collegiate career.
Davis first tried out for his middle school team in the seventh and eighth grade, but was cut each year. Still harboring a desire to play basketball, Davis, whom is a quarter Japanese, began playing for an unofficial Asian League as a member of the Sacramento Warlords.
His ventures in the league paid off in high school when Davis made the junior varsity team, “the first [official] team he was on”, as a freshman, albeit barely.
“They were actually thinking of putting me down to frosh-soph, I wasn’t good at all. I couldn’t make a left-handed layup, I could barely make post-moves.” recalls Davis.
When sophomore year rolled around, Davis’s fortunes took a favorable turn, as he gained the ability to dunk courtesy of a growth spurt that propelled the 16 year old from a modest 6-foot-1-inches into an imposing 6-foot-6-inches. Unfortunately with Davis’s newfound height came a litany of knee pains, and his year was characterized by numerous visits to the trainer’s office.
During his junior year, the lanky teenager was called up to varsity, but like his first two years, was relegated to mostly riding the bench. Unfazed, Davis adopted a more serious outlook towards his game and devoted more time to honing his skills.
“I didn’t think I was going to go anywhere in basketball at first,” said Davis. “Everybody said that I had a lot of potential because I progressed a lot every year. So I just kept working, and I realized I could do this in college, maybe [even play in the pros].”
Davis’s efforts paid off, as come senior year he was finally inserted into the starting line-up. Davis was integral to the team’s success, averaging 11 points and 12 rebounds per game, and was recognized with All-Metro League honors at the season’s end.
Upon graduating, Davis was ranked 16th among the class of 2010 in Northern California, which did not net him any scholarship offers asides from the Air Force. To improve his recruitment prospects, Davis opted to spend a fifth year in prep school before attending college.
As the league high jump champion his junior and senior year, Davis had a strong probability of procuring a track and field scholarship, but his passion ultimately lied with basketball.
“I feel like basketball is just the most fun. You can always get the crowd excited… that’s [what I love]. When I get a dunk or a nice, I just hear the crowd,” said Davis. “It’s one of the only sports where I could hear [the crowd’s reaction] right after I do something.”
Alongside current teammate Travis Souza, Davis gained valuable experience playing against the country’s top players at New Hampton Prep, including future NBA players Andre Drummond and Noah Vonle.
“We played against a lot of good players. One of the teams we played against, their entire starting five was going to Kansas, Villanova, Pitt (sic), they were all going to big-time schools,” said Davis. “We were just playing against great competition every night.”
While attending New Hampton, Davis was offered and signed a scholarship to play at the University of Pennsylvania early on into the recruiting season. However, after careful consideration, Davis decided to decommit from the Ivy League to explore his other options.
Fielding offers from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and Delaware, Davis originally had no intention of even visiting UCI. It was only at the behest of his parents, whom insisted he at least give the school a chance and visit home, did Davis relent.
Upon his visit to UCI, Davis was immediately taken in by the close-knit environment and sense of family fostered by the team. Coupled with the university’s strong academics, and Davis saw all he needed to don the blue and gold.
Playing on an Anteater squad comprised of eight other freshman and no seniors, Davis was apart one of the nation’s youngest teams. Of the 338 schools playing Division 1 basketball in 2011, only nine teams did not boast a senior on their roster.
Despite Davis setting a new program record of single-season blocked shots with 55 as a true freshman, the team could not overcome their collective inexperience. With a record of 12-20 and 6-10, the Anteaters finished the season tied for sixth place in the Big West.
“I wasn’t used to that because at [Sacramento High] we always won, at New Hampton we won a lot, and then when I came here, we were losing our freshman year, [and] I hated it.” said Davis.
Hungry and driven, Davis experienced a breakout season his sophomore year. He broke his own single-season record with 88 blocked shots, and averaged 14.8 points, 8 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks in the team’s final 11 games. His on-court prowess translated to a 21-16 record for the Anteaters, the third-most wins procured by a team in program history.
For his efforts, Davis was voted the team’s Most Improved Player and earned the Big West Conference’s Best Defensive Player award. In his junior year, Davis was given All-Big West Conference honors and became UCI’s career leader in blocked shots with 174.
“Will has improved tremendously. If you look at it before, his basketball, he grew up…he matured. He was a teenager, came in, and then he became a man in the last four years,” said assistant Coach Ali Ton. “That’s the biggest thing you can applaud is when a person one the [basketball court comes in] and [establishes himself] as one of the top players in our league both offensively and defensively.
In addition to the growth of his basketball prowess, Davis has grown to cultivate a stronger relationship with his father.
“He’s talked to me after all [of my] games. [Before, he’d be like ‘It doesn’t seem like you’re really into it,’” said Davis. “[But] now, whenever he talks to me, he’d just give me little critiques on my game and stuff like that. Our conversations [have] turned all the way around.”
Following his graduation from UCI, Davis plans to pursue a career as a professional overseas within the European league, following in the footsteps of ex-teammate and current Director of Basketball Operations Michael Wilder.
Before he travels overseas, Davis still has some unfinished business left to take care of at UC Irvine:
“I feel like every year, we’re right there, but we don’t make that final push over the top. My sophomore year, we lost in the championship game, last year we lost in the semi-final game,” said Davis. “It’s my last year, so I definitely want to make it, and then I want people to know that they did it Will Davis’s senior year, Michael’s, Travis’s and John Ryan’s senior year, the seniors. I want our class to be known as the class that made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time.”