|Super junior Zach Baines leads Occidental in points and blocks and is second in rebounds per game.
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By Nathan Ford
At every Occidental men’s basketball game, Zach Baines can look to the bleachers for some familiar faces – 2,900 miles from his hometown of Stamford, Conn.
“My aunt, she makes it to every game,” said Baines, a junior starter for the Tigers. “Every game that she comes to, she surprises me by bringing some type of family member, whether it’s my little cousin or my grandmother.”
Sometimes there are distant cousins, or uncles, and now, friends.
“(He’s) well liked on campus,” said Occidental head coach Brian Newhall, “on and off the court.”
It’s the middle of his junior season now, and Baines recently passed the one-year anniversary of his arrival at Occidental.
At this time last year, he was beginning to find his way in LA.
Occidental made his list as a senior at Greens Farms Academy in Westport, Conn. But ultimately, he picked Middlebury, a traditionally strong program in Vermont 250 miles north of GFA.
By all accounts, Baines’ college experience was going well.
He played in 27 games as a freshman, averaging 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds. As a sophomore, the 6-5 forward’s role expanded. Baines was averaging 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds as the Panthers started 7-1, but an idea that had been tossed around before tugged at him.
In his head when he was making a college decision his senior year, and still there, was that most of his mom’s side of the family lives in the Los Angeles area. That includes grandma.
“My grandmother is kind of getting at that age where she needs a lot of people to take care of her,” Baines said. “My mom has always entertained the idea of moving out there. I kind of thought about it as well.”
The thought turned into a decision, and then a plan. He packed up after the first semester of 2016-17, enrolled at Occidental and hopped on a cross-country flight.
“I know that Middlebury was a great school, athletically and academically, but I just kind of wanted to be closer to this home and see some other family that I haven’t met,” Baines said.
Newhall, now in his 31st year as Occidental head coach, welcomed Baines with open arms.
“We’ve been what I’ll call average at best basketball-wise,” Newhall said, “and he got here last year … (I) threw him in the starting lineup and he fit in perfectly.”
His first start was his first game in orange and black, Jan. 12 at Whittier. It was a 79-75 loss, but Baines played 36 minutes, totaling 18 points on 5-for-9 shooting and seven rebounds.
“It was pretty tough just because I was flying to a different environment and a different kind of team,” Baines said. “I first just kind of learned the system that we played and observed what the team was missing at the time, or just what people contributed. I just wanted to come in and fill holes and contribute as much as I could.”
Contribute, he did. Baines, an Economics major who was intrigued by the strong academic program at Occidental, started 12 games and averaged 14.8 points, second on the team, and 6.2 boards as Oxy split its last 12 games to finish 14-11.
After the season, Baines and his teammates met with the coaching staff individually to get an idea of what they needed on over the offseason.
To Baines and his coaches, the plan was obvious.
“We were on the same page that this year I would be the primary scorer, so I really worked on my leadership and just every aspect of my offensive game because I knew come this season, the ball would be in my hands the majority of my time,” Baines said.
To say that has worked out might be an understatement in late January. Occidental is 14-2 and alone atop the SCIAC at 7-0. Its only Division III loss is to No. 1 Whitman – and that 73-69 game is still the Blues’ worst scoring output this season.
Baines is a clear SCIAC player of the year candidate, leading the team with 19.9 points per game, second with 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He’s shooting 40.4 percent from 3-point range and his usage rate of 28.3 percent confirms the ball is in his hands often.
“He’s really improved his game,” Newhall said. “He’s added a midrange game. Added passing skills where he’s really improved his court vision. Working hard on defense. We were OK as a team but one thing we do is play pretty good team defense and he’s fit into that with his length and shot-blocking ability.
“Really, the No. 1 thing would be leadership. Zach’s a fantastic captain.”
Knowing all this, you might be surprised to learn Occidental was picked to finish eighth in the nine-team SCIAC back in November.
It’s a young team with no seniors, so there was probably a bit of an unknown there. The Tigers were 6-10 last year and tied for fifth.
Baines may be relatively new to Occidental, but so are most of his teammates. They knew they had more potential.
“We just have great chemistry together,” Baines said. “We are such a young team in our conference, because we have no seniors, we just kind of all relate to each other in the sense that this is going to be our team for years to come, so we just developed that chemistry early.
“We have great ball movement. No one player is selfish about their shot selection. We just gel well.”
Six-foot-7 forward Austin DeWitz joins fellow junior Baines in double-figures scoring with 15.3 points and leads the club with 9.9 rebounds a game. Ryan Kaneshiro, a 6-2 sophomore, dishes out 4.4 assists, while adding 5.8 points. Sophomores Jonny Crosthwaite and Caleb Yellin-Flaherty, junior Jeevin Sandhu and freshman Jacob Adler average between 4.8 and 8.0 points.
Their goal has been to win the SCIAC tournament for a spot in the NCAA tournament, but their sights now are set on a regular-season title – and homecourt advantage in the conference tourney. The Tigers took another step in that direction by beating Cal Lutheran 64-62 on Wednesday night.
Of course, Baines would have family in attendance should that No. 1 SCIAC seed come to fruition.
Someone familiar is always there.
It’s a big reason why, as Occidental men’s basketball continues to heat up, Baines doesn’t miss the northeast cold.
“Not at all,” he said, presumably soaking up the sun. “Love it out there, but … no.”
Clearly, the Occidental men are on pace to make preseason predictions look foolish. Here are three other West Region teams that have opened eyes so far in 2017-18.
Buena Vista men – Picked seventh in the Iowa Conference, which wouldn’t even be good enough for an IIAC tournament spot, the Beavers are 7-3 in the league and just a game behind co-defending champions Nebraska Wesleyan and Loras for first place. BVU handed preseason favorite NWU its first loss, 91-75, on Jan. 3 and gave the Duhawks a game before falling 82-80 on Jan. 13. Sophomore guard Billy Sparks has been, well, a spark off the bench after not playing last year. He’s third on the team with 11.4 points per game and shooting 48.1 percent from beyond the arc and 90.6 percent from the free-throw line.
Gustavus Adolphus men – The Golden Gusties have already surpassed last year’s 5-15 mark, sitting 8-4 just past the conference campaign’s halfway point. Gustavus was picked eighth and, now tied for second in the loss column with three other teams, could easily end up around there. Still, December wins over Augsburg and Hamline were impressive and Gustavus will have a shot at a postseason spot if it can knock off a big dog or two. After two straight double-digit losses to two likely upper-half half teams (Bethel and Augsburg), Gustavus got back on track with a win over St. Thomas last night.
Willamette women – This could be a historic year for the Bearcats. Last year’s 5-11 Northwest Conference record was the best since at least 2004-05, and Willamette is already 6-2 through the first half of the league schedule this year. Led by senior guard Kylie Towry (16.2 points per game), Willamette (10-7) was picked in a tie for fifth in the preseason, but has a chance to make a rapid rise and clinch a coveted top-four spot in the standings for an NWC tournament bid.