LANGLEY — The best part of ageing into an ‘old’ basketball writer?
For me, it’s that rare but reassured feeling I get, when against any reasonable expectation, a player straps the fortunes of his team on his back, and in this case almost carries them to an improbable upset.
That is the place I found myself this past Tuesday evening at the Langley Events Centre. And although I don’t do this song-and-dance anywhere near as much as I used to, I’m happy to report that some things never get old.
As a bit of a scene-setter, the Trinity Western Spartans, on this night, were playing host to UC Santa Barbara as part of the Gauchos two-game NCAA Div. 1 foreign tour.
Just a week previous, TWU had been eviscerated 134-70 by the touring Boise State Broncos, a loss substantial enough that local hoop aficionados might have been tempted, right then and there, to write off the locals on the spot… some three months ahead of its Canada West conference opener.
And while there was not to be a miracle comeback from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit in what was an eventual 90-84 Santa Barbara win, it was impossible to miss the play of Trinity Western’s 6-foot-4, 200-pound third-year guard David Mutabazi, whose ever-expanding game already seems to assure his place among the nation’s top scorers this season.
“He’s worked hard and we think he’s going to be a superstar,” smiled Spartans’ head coach Trevor Pridie after Mutabazi dropped a game-high 34 points on the Gauchos, highlighted by a 20-point second half in which he flummoxed opposition defenders at every turn, powering his way inside and ultimately feasting with an 11-for-14 night from the charity stripe.
“I believe in him as much as anybody,” continued Pridie of Mutabazi who had scored 23 points in the lopsided loss to Boise State after averaging a respectable 15 points per game last season in his U SPORTS’ debut with the Spartans.
“I think he is one of the toughest matchups in the country,” added Pridie.
To be clear, this writer’s heart will always beat a little faster when the talk turns to B.C.’s best university basketball players.
And you can take that to another level altogether when that player’s success comes not only in a stay-at-home role against U.S. competition, but after also having navigated a path of near-total anonymity while emerging from his high school years.
Mutabazi, born in the East African nation of Rwanda, came to Canada at age 13 and later suited up without causing too much of a fuss at Sullivan Heights in Surrey, and later at Coquitlam’s Gleneagle, before spending his Grade 12 season playing with the prep program at Panther Hoops.
Yet if you saw the way Mutabazi dominated the NCAA Div. 1 competition he faced last Tuesday as the best player on the LEC Centre Court floor, then you can rightly call him a complete sleeper, despite the fact he spent his first post-secondary season in the CCAA with the PacWest’s Columbia Bible College Bearcats of the PacWest, where he was named the circuit’s Rookie of the Year.
That’s the road which led to his Canada West debut with the Spartans last season, where along with that 15 ppg average, he grabbed 8.0 rebounds and dished 2.1 assists per game.
And for the record, the Santa Barbara team which TWU faced were no slouches.
The defending Big West champs may have lost 54 per cent of its scoring from a season ago, yet it brought back three of its top six from 2022-23, including its scoring leader and reigning Big West tourney MVP in 6-foot-5 guard Ajay Mitchell (16.1 ppg, 2022-23).
As well, it has supplemented its group with Creighton transfer guard Ben Shtolzberg; French native and 6-foot-10 Auburn transfer Johan Traore (team-high 24 points vs. TWU), ranked in 2022 by many as the top high school player in Arizona; centre Mezziah Oakman, a 7-foot San Francisco JC transfer, and 6-foot-9 forward Kilian Brockhoff, whose pedigree includes making the German U-16, U-18 and U-20 national teams.
Against Santa Barbara, Mutabazi’s game, especially off the dribble-drive, was so deceptive and explosive that the Gauchos were left without answers.
And while the three-point shot is a reliable part of his arsenal (19-of-56, .339 in 2022-23), he never leaned on it, going just 1-of-4 from distance against the visitors.
Now, his first step to next-level success in the Canada West appears to be coming from his ability to compliment his face-up game with a burgeoning power-post game.
“I feel so unstoppable,” Mutabazi said after the loss, his sentiment no doubt magnified by the uniqueness of his journey as a lightly-recruited kid who, by the time he landed at TWU a year ago, was playing for his fifth team in five seasons.
“This summer, I worked on my body and I got a lot stronger. I am not going to get pushed around anymore.”
And when you look at all of the other pieces contributing last week within the Spartans’ main rotation, it was easy to see that roles had not only been carved out, but embraced by a roster that is growing together.
Connor Platz, the third-year 6-foot-10 centre who finished with 12 points, six blocks and 11 boards against UCSB, has picked right up from his record-setting ways of a season ago, and played like what can only be described as an elite rim protector.
California native and fourth-year guard Juice Belvin scored 15 points and has continued to grow into a force driving to the basket.
And there were a number of others Tuesday worthy of mention, not the least of which are a pair of B.C. high school products who have grown their games at the next level to become pivotal parts of the Spartan rotation.
Third-year guard Leif Skelding (Centennial) had five points, five assists, six rebounds and three steals in 27 minutes, while fourth-year guard Vlad Mihaila (Semiahmoo) had seven points, three assists, five rebounds and just a single turnover in a team-leading 35 minutes of floor time.
A LEGACY OF SUMMER TOURS PAST
Since the concept of the NCAA’s foreign tours for Div. 1 programs became the norm around the turn of the century, our province has played host to some pretty dynamic programs.
And so over the past 20 years, there have not only been some pretty amazing teams venture into Nash-Sacre-Olynyk territory, there have also been some pretty amazing results.
Using age and a fading memory (haha!) as my crutch, I know I’m going to miss some important ones (probably), but just to confirm some of the stories I’d written but long since forgotten (it happens these days with amazing regularity), I did some fact-checking following Mutabazi’s performance against Santa Barbara.
And yes, there was plenty to re-visit.
Back in late summer of 2007, New Westminster’s Douglas College Royals pulled off a shocker, beating Boise State 109-100.
The Jamie Oei-coached Royals were led by the 33 points of the electric Bol Kong, the former St. George’s Saints superstar guard, in what was believed to be the first-ever win by a Canadian college over an NCAA Div. 1 team.
To this day, Kong, a former Gonzaga Bulldog, remains the only player I have ever personally witnessed being asked for his autograph as a high school player following a high school game by members of the opposing high school team.
That same summer, UBC beat Boise State 106-86, a win which took its place among other memorable Thunderbirds’ victories over the years against NCAA Div. 1 touring teams, all helmed by longtime head coach Kevin Hanson: Georgia, Kansas State, Cal State Northridge and Hampton.
And quite famously, both the Kansas Jayhawks (2004) and Oklahoma Sooners (2007) toured these parts.
Fans lucky enough to attend the Sooners’ 2007 tour games against UBC, Langara, Fraser Valley and Simon Fraser saw the college debut of eventual No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Blake Griffin.
In 2004, just two seasons into a career now spanning 21 seasons, Kansas came north with its head coach Bill Self.
What I remember most?
Kansas’ fans in the stands saluting its players on the floor post-game at UBC’s War Memorial Gym by coming together for a deliciously slow rendition of ‘Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk’.
And of course most recently, UBC defeated UNLV 79-72 in August of 2022 at War Memorial.
This weekend, the Thunderbirds are playing three games in Costa Rica against NCAA Div. 1 Fairfield. The series opened Saturday as the Stags topped the Thunderbirds 90-69.
The rest of the men’s scores from the 2023 summer tours?
Santa Barbara also beat UBC 80-60.
Boise State went 3-0, adding a 93-57 win over Fraser Valley and an 83-60 win over Thompson Rivers.
The Victoria Vikes, led by superstar guard Diego Maffia, dropped a pair of games in an off-season invitational played in the Bahamas.
UVic fell 80-68 to Xavier, and 103-77 to Penn State.
HOW TRADITIONS ARE ESTABLISHED
This season marks Trinity Western basketball’s 25th year as a member of U SPORTS.
It’s a span long enough to have seen the Spartans’ compete as both a CIAU and CIS (2001) member, prior to the U SPORTS re-branding of 2016.
And now, as it climbs out of its darkest period ever — a six season span (2014-15 to 2019-20) in which conference wins were a complete rarity — a new tradition is being established under Pridie, the former Raptors 905 assistant and Abbotsford-W.J. Mouat senior varsity head coach.
If the first successful TWU foray took place at the conference level in the early 2000s under head coach Stan Peters with players like Brian Banman, Logan Kitteringham and Adam Friesen, and the next hit its highest peak yet with a 2011 CIS national championship game appearance by head coach Scott Allen and more B.C.-bred high school talent like Jacob Doerksen, Calvin Westbrook and Tyrell Mara, the latest re-birth is now underway with Pridie, Mutabazi and Co.
Last Tuesday at the LEC, as Mutabazi was stepping out on his own for the first time ever as the team’s bonafide scoring force, a pair of former Spartans guards — Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath and Mason Bourcier — were cheering on his every success from the stands.
Gilbreath, an Amarillo, TX native, is the player most responsible for helping Pridie usher in the new era of uptempo, scoring guard-fuelled TWU men’s basketball, while Kelowna product Bourcier planted those roots even deeper following stops at UBC and Carleton.
After averaging 27 ppg in 2019-20, then trading basketballs for mothballs during the COVID-cancelled 2020-21 campaign, Gilbreath (26.2 ppg) played alongside newcomer Bourcier (16.3 ppg) in 2021-22 where they combined to average 42.5 ppg.
Last season Bourcier (19.9 ppg) closed out his TWU career by teamming with newcomer Mutabazi (15 ppg).
“Those guys are my mentors for sure,” added Mutabazi, who explains how the pair have helped him see that there is more to the game than burst and hops.
“They taught me that I have a gift, but if I don’t understand how to control my speed and athleticism, that I’ll just be like the rest,” Mutabazi continued. “An athletic kid that didn’t go anywhere.”
The Spartans are not scheduled to open Canada West play until Nov. 3 when they travel to Kamloops for a pair of games against Thompson Rivers.
And TWU’s home-opening weekend at the Langley Events Centre doesn’t take place until Nov. 10-11 against the Regina Cougars.
That’s three full months.
Yet based on what we saw this past week, the resilience of the Trinity Western Spartans puts them in pretty good standing to keep their recent uprising moving in the right direction.
“It’s funny because we played Boise last week and it wasn’t quite this result,” laughed Pridie of the night-and-day turnaround.
“So, I don’t want to read too much into these because there are so many factors with these games,” he continued, “but we played hard, we are trying to play a certain style and sometimes the track meet can get a little ugly early on. Against Boise it got a little ugly but today we fixed some stuff, and they played well, so I am happy with the response.”
Certainly, to trail by 21 in the fourth quarter, then to come back and dominate play down the stretch is a positive to take into the next 12 weeks of build-up and prep.
“We couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Mutabazi said of the loss to Boise State. “We made sure we didn’t forget our first game of the season, and what happens to us when we don’t take it seriously. To lose by 60 or whatever it was, if we were just to let it go, just push it aside, we’d just stay the same team.”
The dog days of summer have long since become a special time of the year for university basketball programs in these parts.
You might call it B.C.’s best-kept sports secret.
Back in 2007, Air Force, Oklahoma, Boise State, Idaho and UC-Santa Barbara all came north and played a total of about 20 games in the Greater Vancouver area. It was literally impossible to get to half of them in person.
Maybe consolidation at a single venue like the LEC can make the tradition a summer hoops celebration?
Said Oei to me during my days at The Province newspaper: “Every kid that plays basketball wants to play in the NCAA, and when a lot of them realize they can’t, it’s a bit of a letdown. But when you tell them that they can still compete against these teams, they think it’s pretty cool.”
Ageing sportswriters who wear a love for B.C. basketball on their sleeve can only nod in agreement.
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