Former Tamanawis Wildcat and Fraser Valley Cascade big man Sukhman Sandhu has brought a revelatory skill package to his first season as a UBC Thunderbird. Despite the stops and starts of the 2021-22 Canada West season, Sandhu and fellow UBC newcomer James Woods have helped set the 'Birds in place for a productive post season. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2022. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Men's Basketball

As UBC Thunderbirds host UFV Cascades on Friday, the trick in a 2021-22 Canada West hoops season of stops and starts is finding a way to stay in rhythm with your routine!

VANCOUVER — You’re the head coach of a Canada West men’s or women’s basketball program, and as the most disjointed regular-season campaign in conference history does its best to wind towards an organized conclusion, one question seems to keeping topping all others in terms of relevancy.

Between re-scheduled games and extended byes, what’s the best way to maintain a team’s normal day-to-day rhythms over that crucial, chemistry-dependent stretch in which the regular season gives way to the post-season?

It’s a question especially apropos given the fact that as part of a one-off season bereft of any inter-divisional play, that all 17 of the conference’s team’s will be somehow seeded into what will be two weekends of single-elimination playoffs ahead of the national championships.

“It’s been very difficult to get into a rhythm,” admits UBC men’s head coach Kevin Hanson, whose division-leading Thunderbirds (13-2) play host Friday to Abbotsford’s visiting Fraser Valley Cascades (9-5) in an 8 p.m. tip at War Memorial Gymnasium.

As part of the same weekend homestand at UBC, the Thunderbirds women’s team (5-9) face UFV (10-2) at 6 p.m. Friday, then plays host to Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers WolfPack (1-15) in a 3 p.m. stand-alone contest on Saturday.

“And this season, where you have 17 different teams making the playoffs, you have to be able to adapt to any style of play,” continued Hanson of a tourney that is filled with unknowns, not the least of which is the fact that, outside of the odd exhibition games played in early-to-mid October against Canada West teams outside of their own divisions, it will have been two years since any intermingling between the West, Central and East divisions.

“But there are a lot of moving parts to this, and sometimes not just on the technical side of the court,” continued Hanson. “There are some great life lessons gained through resilience, and good teams are going to be able to play through their adversities. And we will all have them.”

UBC head coach Kevin Hanson, with second-year point guard Jack Cruz-Dumont, . (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

In the case of the ‘Birds, its about getting back on the winning track after dropping a pair of games last weekend in the provincial capital to the Victoria Vikes (10-1).

As a backdrop to the uniqueness of this regular season, Victoria came into last Friday’s series-opening 90-84 win not only having not played since Dec. 4, but also having played five fewer conference games this season than the Thunderbirds, not a small matter for teams playing an 18-game regular season.

One season after the COVID-cancelled 2020-21 campaign, the after-shocks of both flooding and the variant have produced what amounts to vastly unique scenarios for virtually every team in the conference.

In fact, you can start by contrasting the respective finishing stretches of both the Birds and Vikes as they battle for first place in the West.

By virtue of its sweep, Victoria is in the driver’s seat, yet will have to manage its roster for a demanding final stretch of eight games in 18 days, one which began with its 104-70 victory Wednesday in Kamloops over the Thompson Rivers WolfPack.

UBC, on the other hand, with only three more games remaining on its conference slate, was able to accommodate TRU’s request to reschedule, due to travel purposes, its originally-scheduled Saturday (Feb. 12) game.

The contest, now set for Feb. 23 at War Memorial Gym, will serve as UBC’s regular-season finale. The Thunderbirds will also play at UBC Okanagan on Feb. 19.

“With three weeks of byes throughout the playoffs, we wanted to make sure we had some games going on,” says Hanson of being able to extend the regular season by a few more days.

Therein lies UBC’s challenge: Keeping a deep-and-talented team fresh, ready and in game-shape.

Canada West announced at the start of the month that, to align more closely with the U SPORTS’ decision to push its national tournament dates forward to March 31-April 3, that its 17-team opening-round tournament, and its subsequent Final Four conference championships were being pushed forward as well, to March 4-6 and March 17-20 respectively.

All of that means, from UBC’s perspective — and to varying degrees the rest of B.C.’s Canada West teams — a span of at least eight days off before the start of the first-round of playoffs.

After that, the quartet of surviving teams would have a further 11 days off before the start of the conference’s Final Four, with the subsequent survivors getting another 10 days off before the start of nationals.

And as we spoke earlier of just how different an experience it is for each team this season, look no further than UBC’s Friday foes for the perfect contrast.

That contest will be the sixth of seven straight on the road for Fraser Valley, and with a regular-season ending three-straight games against Victoria, including the final two at home, Cascades’ head coach Joe Enevoldson says the pause before the start of the post-season, for his team, will be a blessing.

“The big thing for us is the opportunity to get healthy and get our legs fresh before playoffs,” said Enevoldson, “We’ve been playing straight since Jan. 13, so for us, the bye week is coming at the right time.”

James Woods has brought the same dynamic play he displayed as a B.C. high school MVP at Walnut Grove to the next level as the leading scorer on the 13-2 UBC Thunderbirds. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2022. All Rights Reserved)

As UBC puts its best foot forward to get back on the winning track, it has been impossible to miss just how much of an impact two of its newcomers — guard James Woods and forward Sukhman Sandhu — have had in the team’s success this season, each bringing a calming influence to the proceedings.

Woods, the former Walnut Grove standout and B.C. high school championship MVP who arrived at UBC via the junior college route, is leading the team in scoring as a third-year, putting up 18.5 ppg, just ahead of veteran guard Grant Audu (17.2).

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-10 fourth year Sandhu is third on the team in scoring at 16.8 ppg, and shooting a ridiculous 53.8 per cent from three-point range, while hauling in a team-high 7.3 rebounds per game.

“Both have brought in a scoring prowess for their positions,” begins Hanson. “James has ability to create own shot, he’s been a provincial champion in high school. He took a different path to get here, and in pressure games he’s been a guy to get it done.

“Sukhman does things at a size that not many playing in Canada have done,” continued Hanson of the former Surrey-Tamanawis grad who transferred to UBC from UFV. “He shoots the three at 53 per cent, but he also does so many things that never make a score sheet, like altering shots.

“Both of them are very special players, both quiet, but both winners who never seem to get rattled.”

Having players you can count on is especially important at a time when the national landscape of Canadian university basketball seems as disjointed as ever.

And when the entire U SPORTS basketball world is brought into focus, it becomes clear in a hurry that every region of the country is wondering, due to its own circumstances, whether the delivery system it has been handed, from its conference championships to the national tournament, has it ahead or behind the others.

Take the OUA for example.

The Ontario conglomerate, which opens fully en masse Friday for the first time since Nov. 27, will see each of its schools play between seven-to-nine conference games through March 12, a span of 30 days, and one which would leave it two weekends of conference playoffs, without any byes, before its top teams advanced to the national tournaments.

In one sense, it’s a stream-lined path to nationals. Yet in another, its an exercise in load management for a league which will go from having played no games for a full 77 days, to a season-ending stretch of play as long as 52 days for those teams managing to punch their tickets to the national tournament.

Coach Joe Enevoldson’s UFV Cascades have four regulars averaging double-figures on offence this season, including the speedy Vick Toor. (Photo by Dan Kinvig property of University of the Fraser Valley athletics 2020. All Rights Reserved)

“It has its advantages moving forward, but it can also have its drawbacks,” Enevoldson said, speaking from a national perspective. “Not that you want to ever see anyone get hurt, but if you are not a deep team and you have one or two injuries you could become a different team. So there is something to be said for having some breaks, and something to be said for game action, and repetition.”

In the end, it’s a national post-season which seems more likely than usual to have its share of intriguing, unforeseen moments.

“I think the unpredictability is going to be quite large,” admits Enevoldson. “And at the nationals, it could almost be like Any Given Sunday.”

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