FULLERTON- After Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball fell to Weber State 80-76 in the Riley Wallace Classic Thursday, Dedrique Taylor sat in a conference room alone but for a handful of reporters.
As the Titans head coach tried to almost instantly reconcile the end of his team’s season with the fact they had won more games in 2016-17 than any other year of his tenure, he was filled with conflicting feelings of pride and disappointment.
“There’s only four teams in the country that win their last game,” Taylor said. “At some point, we’ll look back and review the season and I’m sure we’ll be pleased with what we’ve done, but by the same token, as a competitor, I’m not okay with finishing anything less than first.”
Despite not finishing the season hoisting a trophy, the Titans saw signs of incremental progress.
Fullerton was within a last-second putback from Chima Moneke and eventual Big West champs UC Davis from heading into a second overtime in the Big West Tournament semifinals. The team allowed the third-fewest points per 100 possessions in the conference (97.2) after finishing dead-last (111.5) the season before.
More importantly to Taylor was how the team’s four seniors helped establish an identity for the team moving forward.
“I thought Lionheart Leslie, Tre’ Coggins, Darcy Malone and Richard Peters did an excellent job of taking their experience and giving it to our program,” Taylor said. “This young group of guys that’s coming up behind them, they’ve got to now take the baton and continue the trajectory that we’re on in terms of establishing a winning culture.”
Still, with the Titans not finishing where they wanted, the realization they had made progress was bittersweet.
“There were obviously tears shed by a couple of seniors,” Taylor said. “I thanked the seniors and I encouraged our young guys to understand as best they could what those seniors are going through. This is the last time that they’ll put on a collegiate uniform, and it is an emotional charge, and in a lot of ways, it’s like ‘What do I do next?’”
What comes next is as much of a question for the remaining Titans as it is for the seniors.
Barring something unforeseen, reigning Big West Freshman of the Year Jackson Rowe will return, as will key contributors Khalil Ahmad, Kyle Allman, Austen Awosika and Dwight Ramos.
Taylor hopes those players, as well as the team’s next wave of recruits, can take the baton from their outgoing seniors and carry the Titans even further.
“(Our season) started off rocky and we were inconsistent, but we finally found a rhythm on both ends of the floor and we rode that wave toward the end of the season,” Taylor said. “I thought we got a chance to see a glimpse of what this team was capable of. I still don’t feel like we realized our true potential, but we got a chance to see just some of it.”
That “glimpse” of the team’s peak left him with high expectations for the Titans moving forward.
“There’s unfinished business for our program. Our mission is to win a Big West Conference championship and win the Big West Conference Tournament to get to the NCAA (Tournament),” Taylor said. “I think anything less than that is not acceptable moving forward for this ball club.”