The best men’s college basketball team in California — at least in the opinion of its coach — has a good chance of moving on to the NCAA Division I Tournament this week.
This team features balanced scorers with no one averaging more than 12.1 points per game. If you’re looking for name recognition, there’s two players who come off the bench and aren’t asked to do much offensively.
One is Spencer Rivers, whose father, Doc, is coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The other is JC Butler, whose father, Caron, is a two-time NBA All-Star.
Their team is the University of California-Irvine, which is 27-5 and will automatically advance to the NCAA’s big dance if it wins the Big West Conference this week. The Anteaters open with a quarterfinal against UC Riverside Thursday in Anaheim.
And Butler will be more than along for the ride, even if his modest season averages (1.4 points, 1.1 rebounds per game) may suggest otherwise.
The 6-foot-5 Butler, a 2018 Prairie graduate who is the all-time leading scorer among male high school players in Racine County with 2,097 points, started this season deep on the Anteaters’ bench. But he has been seeing meaningful minutes off the bench as a defensive stopper in recent weeks.
It all started Jan. 19, when UC Irvine was trailing UC Northridge 47-31 at halftime in a Big West game at Northridge.
“That was a turning point for him for sure,” UC Irvine coach Russ Turner said.
Butler was sent in that night to start the second half and be a defensive stopper. He did just that in his nine minutes, helping rally the Anteaters to a 74-68 victory.
“I thought in that game, our team was not especially focused and was not playing with the appropriate toughness,” Turner said. “I like the level of toughness and energy JC can generate on defense.
“There was a junior-college transfer named Rodney Henderson who had a big first half and I told JC I wanted him to shut the guy off. He did that and he set the tone for the second half. I also think putting him in there sent a message to our other guys and JC was a part of us turning our team performance around in that game.”
The proof was in the final statistics. Henderson was held to five points in the second half after scoring 13 in the first. And UC Northridge shot 30 percent from the floor in the second half after connecting at a 63.3-percent clip in the first.
As for Butler, he is finally finding a home after admittedly being homesick and frustrated last fall. It was difficult being away from his mother, Lisa Escamilla, and Prairie, which he had attended kindergarten through 12th grade. He also struggled with barely working up a sweat night after night.
“It was very difficult going from maybe playing the entire game to sometimes not playing at all or only playing a couple minutes,” Butler said. “But I knew I had to make some sacrifices for my team to be good.”
It was some transition for a first-team Associated Press All-State player as a senior at Prairie who averaged 26.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. In the 12 games California-Irvine played prior to Jan. 19. Butler played nine minutes or less nine times. He didn’t play at all in three games.
Caron Butler, who lives in nearby Woodland Hills, attended games whenever he could to support his son. So did Escamilla from 2,000 miles away in Racine.
“Him (Caron) and my mom have my back all the time,” Butler said. “They’re my support system. After every game, good or bad, whether I played a lot or a little, they were always there for me and to stay at it and stay the course.”
Things didn’t change overnight following Butler’s performance against UC Northridge. His minutes in the next six games were eight, three, five, two, five and three.
But beginning with a Feb. 21 game against Cal Poly, Butler has seen his minutes increase to 18, 10, 18, 13 and 14. He grabbed a season-high seven rebounds in a rematch against Cal Poly March 7. He went 3 for 3 from the floor and matched his season high of six points in another game against UC Northridge March 9.
All the while, Turner has been watching with interest from the bench.
“He’s had a great season of improvement and I’m really, really excited about his future and his present,” Turner said. “He has stepped into a more prominent role on our team and I feel he is especially talented on the defensive end.
“But he’s just a good overall basketball player. I like what he brings to us and when you look at our team’s record, to come in and contribute on a team like ours is pretty significant and says a lot about his future.”
How does Turner feel about California-Irvine advancing the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in program history (the first was in 2015)?
“I think we have to win our tournament, but that doesn’t diminish what we’ve done,” he said. “What we’ve done to this point is really special. We have the best road record of any team in the country at 13-2 (the Anteaters are tied with Stony Brook for the best road record in Division 1). That’s a testament to the character and toughness of this group and JC has added to that.
“We feel we’re the best team in California and that’s never been anything UC Irvine could say.”
And this could be just the start of something special for Butler.
“He has made a tremendous foundation for himself,” Turner said. “I don’t have any question that JC is a winning player for us moving forward. The only question now is how much better can he get?”