Whicker: It’s win or go home for Khalil Ahmad and Cal State Fullerton basketball

OCRegister Sports 6 months ago

FULLERTON — At times, the recruiters would get to the AAU tournaments and learn that Khalil Ahmad was already gone.

“Some of those teams didn’t really care about winning, just cared about who got his,” said Josh Giles, the coach at Corona Centennial where Ahmad played. “Khalil didn’t play like that. Sometimes he’d just get mad and go home.”

Cal State Fullerton guard Khalil Ahmad, left, drives past Cal State Northridge's Darin Johnson, right, in the quarterfinal game of the Big West Tournament in Anaheim last March. In his junior year, Ahmad has averaged 15.4 points, (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Cal State Fullerton guard Khalil Ahmad, left, drives past Cal State Northridge’s Darin Johnson, right, in the quarterfinal game of the Big West Tournament in Anaheim last March. In his junior year, Ahmad has averaged 15.4 points, (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Ahmad was more comfortable at Centennial, which had Sedrick Barefield, now at Utah, and Ike Anigbogu, who played one year at UCLA and is now with the Indiana Pacers.

There were always coaches checking out the Huskies, one of which was Cal State Fullerton’s Dedrique Taylor. He came to watch others. He wound up watching Ahmad.

On Thursday, the Titans raised their Big West record to 3-0. Ahmad chipped in 10 points in a rallying, 67-64 win at UC Irvine, where they hadn’t won in six seasons.

On Saturday night, defending league tournament champ UC Davis comes to Titan Gym with a 2-0 record. It’s the closest thing to an occasion since the coaching days of Bob Burton.

“I think we’re seeing the benefits of the way Khalil makes the right basketball play,” Taylor said. “When you recruit a guy like that you try to have tunnel vision. Most of the time when you like a guy, there’s 97 other schools who like him. I’m looking around saying, ‘Are we missing something?’ But we knew we liked him for the right reasons.”

There was nothing accidental about Ahmad’s development. His cousin is Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was one of the nation’s best players at Mater Dei and then won national championships at Connecticut. Now she plays for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

Mosqueda-Lewis is 24 and had several other advantages over Ahmad. Their 1-on-1 games did not go well.

“I’d come home with no Ws,” Ahmad said. “I could have a good close-out on her and she’d still make it.

“We would go see as many of her games as we could. What I learned was how consistent she was. She could be face-guarded or double-teamed and it didn’t matter. Every single game she was going to find a way to score.”

Ahmad grew to 6-foot-4 and played immediately at Centennial, since a heavy senior class had just left. That year the Huskies were 7-19. Ahmad scheduled workouts each morning at 5, at a fitness center, and then reported to school, where his first-period class was basketball practice.

“That’s three and a half hours of work before he did anything else,” Giles said. “He was a nice player, averaging 11 or so points a game, but in his senior year he started averaging 16, and that’s on a team with some real good players. He put the work in, got the rewards.”

The rewards included a state regional championship over Lonzo Ball and Chino Hills in 2014.

Long before that, Ahmad’s dad Tariq would accompany him to all workouts and write down everything he did.

“He is a big note-taker,” Ahmad said. “He would do a lot of research, and then when ESPN would show 30 for 30 and there would be some film of Kobe Bryant, we’d watch his moves and then we’d rewind them and watch them again, and I’d try to do them myself.”

Tariq is also a fire department captain and would occasionally use the fire truck to pick up Khalil from practice. “I’d sit way up there and look down at everybody,” Khalil said.

Cal State Fullerton's Khalil Ahmad, left, stops UC Irvine's Max Hazzard during a game Thursday at the Bren Events Center in Irvine on Thursday,. Fullerton's Austen Awosika (10) also defends on the play. . (Photo by Matt Masin, Orange County Register, SCNG)

Cal State Fullerton’s Khalil Ahmad, left, stops UC Irvine’s Max Hazzard during a game Thursday at the Bren Events Center in Irvine on Thursday,. Fullerton’s Austen Awosika (10) also defends on the play. . (Photo by Matt Masin, Orange County Register, SCNG)

Ahmad is basically a perimeter player who provides the Titans with whatever. In an overtime loss to Cal, he drilled five 3-pointers and scored 21.

That came after a 34-pointer with six threes at Utah Valley. Ahmad has put up double figures in his past eight games.

The Titans are 10-5. They’ve won their Big West games by a total of 10 points, with one in overtime. They’ve dropped some other hints, like their wins over Loyola Marymount and Harvard. Georgia, which anticipates an NCAA tournament trip this year, only beat the Titans by seven.

The first sprouts were seen last spring, after Taylor endured three tough seasons. The Titans were 17-15 and 10-6 in the league. Kyle Allman began to show the form that has made him current Big West Player of the Week. Jackson Rowe was the league’s Freshman of the Year, as Ahmad was before him.

“We’ve found a nice rhythm offensively and we’re playing as a collective group,” Taylor said.

It also helps when you like your players. More than once Taylor has texted Ahmad and asked where he was.

“Barnes and Noble,” is the reply.

“That’s unheard-of nowadays,” Taylor said, smiling. But then some guys just play by the book.

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