BURNABY — A reporter takes a seat last week in the Burnaby Mountain office of Simon Fraser head men’s basketball coach Steve Hanson, offering an apology ahead of what must be the most obvious observation of all.
“Coach, you’ve got a lot of new guys…”
Willing to indulge his inquisitor in the playful manner in which the question was intended, Hanson clicks his computer screen to life.
“I might have to look at my roster just to make sure I remember everyone,” he laughs, the moment a lighthearted confirmation that the core of the group which led the program to the most productive three-season stretch in its 12-year NCAA history has now departed.
Yet despite hefty losses — 60 per cent of last season’s player minutes, 67 per cent of its scoring, and 76 of its 120 player-games started — as well as a ninth-place prediction in the annual 10-team Great Northwest Athletic Conference coaches poll, you’d be incorrect to call this roster a complete re-start despite what the numbers might be trying to tell you.
That’s great news for a fan base which gets its first look at the 2022-23 team on Friday (7:30 p.m.) as Simon Fraser (12-13 overall, 7-9 GNAC in 2021-22) makes its official Red Leafs debut, hitting the road for the resurrected Buchanan Cup crosstown clash against the host UBC Thunderbirds (6-0 overall, 0-0 Canada West) at War Memorial Gymnasium.
“It’s lived up to my expectations… all the practice and battling,” said Hanson last week of his team’s progress, just before the team was set to scrimmage against both the Fraser Valley Cascades and the Victoria Vikes.
“The carryover from last season is not there, with six returning guys and really only three that played a lot of minutes, so it’s a steep curve for our guys,” continued Hanson, who is counting, among his graduation losses, six of his top nine players from a season ago when SFU beat UBC 90-82 atop Burnaby Mountain in the first Buchanan Cup game since 2015.
“I think we definitely have talent,” confirmed Hanson, entering his seventh season at the Red Leafs’ helm. “Overall, we have great people coming in, guys that love basketball and are great students, so I am really excited about our group. Our urgency is getting on them to say ‘Hey, we have to get ready to play.’ We’re into midterms and as basketball gets heavy you can see it on their faces. It’s a steep learning curve. Overwhelming. But we’ll be tougher for it down the road.”
In a strict comparison of the new roster against last season’s, the exits of Julian Roche, Jas Singh, Jordan Lyons, Will Balata, Josiah Mastandrea and Drew Bryson represents the single biggest off-season talent drain in the program’s 13-year NCAA history.
Yet an experienced returning backcourt of starting junior point guard David Penney and rapidly improving sophomore off-guard Elliot Dimaculangan, along with starting senior small forward Jahmal Wright is enough of a stabilizing base from which to re-trench.
And with the transfer portal bringing three plug-and-play Div. 1 talents in guard Eric Beckett (Vermont) and forwards Victor Radocaj (Eastern Washington) and George Lefebvre (Vermont), the larger part of the foundation seems already to have been poured.
The Red Leafs are also optimistic that two others from within its own ranks will show themselves to be ready to bring even more dimension to the rotation.
Zach Stone, the 6-foot-11, 219 pound sophomore from Ottawa’s Louis Riel High, seems ready to deliver on a well-timed redshirt season in 2021-22, and 6-foot-4 reserve guard Jovan Rai, unflappable in his desire to dent the box score to a greater degree this season, is according to Hanson, a much-improved player ready to bring quality minutes in the back court.
Yet it doesn’t stop there because Simon Fraser’s incoming 2022-23 recruiting class is rife with the potential of a number of first-years, some of whom may see immediate action.
Freshmen players can play in October games without the danger of losing eligibility, and thus SFU’s six-man class of Immanuel Oludele, Tate Christiansen, Matthys Van Bylandt, Omar Elchazli, Nigel Hylton and Jimmy Zaborniak could potentially all see the floor against UBC on Friday in advance of final redshirt decisions.
All reports indicate that a number of players, led by Hylton, the 6-foot-8, 205 pound forward from Thornlea (Ont.), Oludele, a 6-foot-6 swing from St. Catherines (Ont.)-Ridley College and Zaborniak, the star 5-foot-11 guard from the B.C. Quad-A champion Burnaby South Rebels, have displayed solid play through the first few weeks of their collegiate careers.
Here’s a positional look at how the roster is taking shape as we move into Buchanan Cup week.
THE BACK COURT
Penney stepped up into the floor general role last season as a sophomore, and as the roster has evolved around the 6-foot-1 Guelph (Ont.) native, his return as a stabilizer is worth its weight in gold on the Red Leafs’ roster.
“I think everything starts with the point guard and last year, David was able to lead a very senior group,” explained Hanson as Penney came out of the COVID-cancelled 2020-21 season as the heir apparent to longtime standout Michael Provenzano, averaging a team-high 33.1 minutes per contest a year ago.
Dimaculangan, the tough-minded 6-foot-4 back-up who came off the bench last season as a freshman, is expected to team with Penney in the backcourt this season.
“I think we’re going to move Elliot into more of a starter’s role, so it will be good to see two court generals on the floor at times because they really play well together,” said Hanson.
Just how that rotation ultimately shakes out will be dictated by the terms of the season, yet it is undoubtedly enhanced by the addition of 6-foot-4, 230 pound junior Eric Beckett, one of the team’s two incoming transfers from NCAA Div. 1 Vermont.
Working through a sore hamstring, and hopeful to be able to play Friday, Beckett brings the kind of wide-bodied frame coaches love because of his ability to create positional mismatches based on a number of factors, including physical strength.
“I would compare him to a guy like Isaiah Sherman-Newsom,” smiled Hanson, referencing the former 6-foot-4, 221 pound guard and Alaska native who last played at SFU in 2017-18 (10.3 pig, 5.5 rpg) in a backcourt that included Kedar Salam, Othniel Spence and a sophomore Provenzano. “When he walks through the door, you would think he played defensive end. Beckett is a thick dude. A very good decision maker and a very unique basketball body.”
And then there is Rai, who has worked tirelessly on his game over the off-season and looks set to begin the season with an opportunity to grab some minutes. Hanson called him potentially “a top nine guy.”
Zaborniak has brought his incredible will to win into practice with the Red Leafs, and among the freshmen battling for a backcourt spot, has opened eyes, although no final decision on the status of first-year players has yet been made.
“Jimmy is a tough SOB,” said Hanson. “He’s impressed me.”
THE FRONT COURT
Jahmal Wright started 21 of the 24 games he played in a season ago, averaging 24.7 minutes a game with averages of 6.1 points and 3.0 rebounds.
In any scenario, the 6-foot-6, 190 pound senior transfer from Div. 1 Maryland-Eastern Shore, was going to play a huge role in 2022-23.
Heading into Friday, however, Wright is literally the only tested front-court player returning from a season ago.
No 7-foot Julian Roche. No 6-foot-8 Jas Singh. No 6-foot-7 Jordan Lyons. No 6-foot-4 Wifried Balata.
So it’s not rocket science to suggest that from both a chemistry and familiarity standpoint, that Wright and a new group of forwards could take some early lumps in a first go-round with GNAC competition.
Yet insider reports from the teams scrimmages against UFV and UVic seem to suggest that even with limited reps, there is a fast-setting bond between the group, the likes of which a chemical equation likely couldn’t fully explain.
“Jahmal is an X-factor for us,” admitted Hanson of a player whose upside is expected to be revealed as his role climbs a few notches to that of a foundational force. “He’s got a huge wingspan so he is difficult to play against. This year we expect him to be an all-star type player.”
After that, the chemistry experiments begin in earnest.
Joining Wright will be a pair of Div. 1 players in the 6-foot-10, 225 pound Victor Radocaj, an Eastern Washington transfer and junior who played through his Grade 10 year at Richmond’s R.A. McMath Secondary before closing out his high school career at the prep school level, and Montreal native George Lefebvre, a 6-foot-8, 220 pound sophomore transfer from Vermont.
Hanson explains that both players have different games than Singh, whose 2021-22 season was sadly de-railed due to injuries.
“And their games are a lot different from each other as well,” continued Hanson.
With its back-court situation more accustomed to the GNAC, there is little question that the single biggest factor in just how quickly the team is able to show its best self comes in the way that the veteran additions Radocaj and Lefebvre are able to come out of the gates.
Yet in reflection, Hanson can draw an immediate parallel to the responsibility Roche shouldered, coming in as a decorated transfer from Div. 1 Santa Clara.
“When you get Div. 1 transfers, there is a reason they have come here,” begins Hanson. “Some of them aren’t playing enough. Or they don’t like their roles. So they know coming in that we have high expectations of them. Like ‘We expect you to be good.’ And that is a hard transformation mentally.
“But also, for Julian, what I realized is that in the pressure to be great, he thrived. It took him time to gain that mindset, but he wanted to be the man. That is what Victor and George have to do this year.”
“Victor is a Bosnian kid with that European game. He can ball-handle, pass it very well, and he’s getting better around the rim. George is an elite defender. So we’re excited to do some things different, and then also similar (to last season).”
Joining that trio will be Zach Stone, a redshirt whose size and potential proved very tempting last season when Singh was lost at the start of 2022 due to injuries.
“Last season we had three very talented guys ahead of him, and when Jas went down we actually talked to him,” remembered Hanson of potentially taking Stone out of dry dock and throwing him into the competitive waters last January. “We could have used another centre. But it was the right decision. Zach went into the weight room and added 15 pounds of muscle, and although he tweaked his back in August and was off for four weeks, he is healing up nicely. He could start for us. He gives us some options up front.”
And although no firm decisions on freshmen have been made, the coaching staff will perhaps have some similar ones to consider when it comes to 6-foot-8, 205 pound Nigel Hylton, the Thornlea (York, Ont.) grad who brings an intriguing blend of size and length to the table.
One fact to consider? Hanson says this new edition of Red Leafs has a collective wingspan at the two, three and four spots whose breadth may well be more expansive than last season’s team, and Hylton’s inclusion into that mix would only help the cumulative effect.
THE SEASON AWAITS
SFU’s incoming recruiting class was so blue-chip this season that we haven’t even mentioned the fact that, among others, Gio Khan, the former Burnaby South standout by way of Douglas College and UFV, is sitting out the season on the one-year transfer rule.
As well, there’s Omar Elchazli, a 6-foot-7 standout forward from Katy, Texas; the North Vancouver-Handsworth Royals pair of 6-foot-5, 200 pound forward Matthys Van Bylandt and 6-foot-4, 188 pound guard Tate Christiansen; and 6-foot-2 sophomore guard Terique Brown, an Ontario native and Dominican University of California transfer.
Former Vancouver College star 6-foot-5 sophomore Hunter Cruz-Dumont continues to rehab from a foot injury, while 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Kemo Sonko and 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Colten Northrup deal with knee and hip issues respectively.
And come Friday night, all of the newcomers will come to understand the passion of the program’s rivalry with the UBC Thunderbirds.
One of those players, Ajax (Ont.) native Beckett, seems to have caught on in a hurry.
“Beckett came into the office this morning and he says ‘Coach, oh, I gotta be ready for UBC,’ so I said ‘Oh, you know about UBC?’” laughed Hanson. “He saw the pictures of the crowd when we played here last year. And he played at Vermont so he is used to packed gyms.
“This is going to be great because both teams have a lot of talented B.C. kids, too. And it’s always fun to have bragging rights.”
COMING LATER THIS WEEK: We begin our look at the Buchanan Cup host UBC Thunderbirds.
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