VANCOUVER —Kevin Hanson loves the fact that his 2022-23 Thunderbirds are getting a great taste of post-season atmosphere before the conference season even gets a chance to tip off.
On Friday, a little over two months after the ‘Birds kicked it all off in front of a near-capacity home crowd of 2,103 on Aug. 16 with a thrilling 79-72 win over the NCAA’s name-brand Div. 1 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the venerable old barn swings its doors open again, this time for an even bigger game.
And we’re talking, of course, about the continued resurrection of the annual Buchanan Cup crosstown men’s hoops clash between UBC and Simon Fraser’s freshly-minted Red Leafs. The game is set for a 7:30 p.m. tip, and if you can’t make it out, you can watch it live via stream here.
UBC leads the series, which has been played on and off since 1967-68, by an 18-16-1 margin, making Friday’s meeting the 36th edition.
“What I really love about the UNLV game and now this game,” began Hanson, “is the kind of playoff vibe that it has. These are games where you have to maintain your composure, games where sometimes the effort to win might exceed the effort to execute. We’re trying to get our guys to realize that. But we couldn’t ask for anything more than this.”
The anticipated sell-out follows on the heels of last season’s game, won 90-82 by SFU Nov. 20 before 1,600 fans atop Burnaby Mountain.
UBC will open its Canada West conference season Nov. 12 when Prince George’s UNBC Timberwolves make a southward migration to the cozy confines of War Memorial Gym.
Ahead of Friday’s game, we clear out the notebook with an insider’s look at players and coaches.
ALL ‘SHOOK’ UP: COHEE JOINS UBC STAFF
Longtime assistant coach Sean Shook left the UBC men’s coaching staff recently to take a position in athletics administration at Langara College.
Assistants Taylor Williams, Dany Charlery and ex-Birds forward Luka Zaharijevic will remain with the staff, and to augment it, Hanson has brought in former UBC star Jadon Cohee as another assistant coach.
In just two seasons with the ‘Birds (2018-20), Cohee established himself as an all-timer in blue-and-gold, starting all 68 games he dressed for, averaging 18.9 points, 4.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds, while hitting 143 treys at a 35 per cent clip.
“Jadon brings another level of energy… he talks the language of these kids,” said Hanson of the former Walnut Grove star from Langley who also played at Seattle University and Southern Utah, then turned down 45 NCAA Div. 1 offers to come to UBC for his final two seasons of eligibility. “He has sparked us emotionally and guys here are buying into his defence. He brings a lot of energy. He has been a huge pick up for us.”
So far reaching has Cohee’s influence been that ‘Birds current scoring leader James Woods this week spoke to the inspiration he drew from his fellow Walnut Grove graduate and former B.C. 4A MVP, five years his senior.
“He has been a mentor to me in life and in basketball,” said Woods of Cohee, who led the Gators to their first-ever B.C. senior varsity title in 2013.
“I remember when I was in Grade 5, his team would practice right after my team and I would run out, tug on his shorts and ask him if we could play one-on-one before their practice started.”
MONEY IN THE BANK
UBC is letting two of its top recruits get more accustomed to university life as they prepare to enter the Canada West.
Karan Aujla, the 6-foot-8 post from Burnaby South, and Triple-A scoring sensation Temwa Mtawali, the 6-foot-1 guard from Courtenay’s Mark Isfeld Ice, are each expected to redshirt this season.
Nothing too strange about that, but expect it to be a little more common throughout the U SPORTS world on the heels of the 2020-21 COVID-cancelled campaign.
“They are both going to be great players, but they saw the depth chart of guys ahead of them and it was a very mature move on their part,” said Hanson.
Canada West, like the rest of the country, has rosters which include sixth- and seventh-year players who are continuing to get an education and playing on the banked eligibility status brought on by the pandemic.
“It’s become an older league for the moment with a lot of very mature players, and it is tough for some of these younger guys to get some burn,” added Hanson.
While Aujla’s high school exploits are as well-documented as any player in the province, Mtawali is a bit of an unknown.
Yet his scoring prowess should be as unquestioned as any member the high school Class of 2022.
As a Grade 10, and after the COVID year as a senior, Mtawali finished his career at the B.C. Triple-A championships averaging a fat 29.1 points per game.
ANOTHER MVP JOINS THE ROSTER
Back in the spring of 2019, a month removed from earning MVP honours in helping Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers to a B.C. Quad-A title for the ages, guard Arjun Samra started to run with the ‘Birds in hopes of cracking the roster as a walk-on while beginning classes that the fall as a pre-med student.
Alas, the 6-foot-1 combo guard was unable to claim a spot, but three full years later, his perseverance has paid off.
“Arjun has just been hanging out,” said Hanson. “He first came to us three years ago wanting to try out, but we had lots of guys and not enough room. But we kept in contact and he always came out to open runs. He could still shoot it, he could still score. He stuck around long enough and played well enough through the exhibition that we said ‘Let’s find a spot for him.’”
THREE BIRDS TO WATCH
They are each stories unto themselves, and 2022-23 could see breakouts for Luka Lizdek, Nikola Guzina and Triston Matthews, all set to play substantial roles for the ‘Birds.
As the season kicks off, here’s the skinny on a trio worth watching:
The last time a Luka passed through these parts, he won the hearts of the War Memorial fans, and he has stuck around to help in a coaching capacity.
We are speaking, of course of big man Luka ‘The Bazooka’ Zaharijevic.
These days, however, it’s Luka Lizdek, a 5-foot-10, 175 pound fourth-year guard, who like Zaharijevic, is a Kitsilano Secondary graduate.
Coming out of high school, Lizdek picked the OUA and the Ottawa Gee-Gees, but later returned to B.C. and in 2019-20 averaged 19 points, as well as a half-dozen assists and rebounds with the PacWest’s Langara Falcons.
Coming off the bench Oct. 9 in a tournament game staged at Calgary’s Jack Simpson Gymnasium, Lizdek played what can best be described as a perfect fourth quarter in helping UBC win its third game in three days, 81-79 over the Brock Badgers.
Lizdek played the entire fourth, scoring all 13 of his points on three-of-three shooting including a pair of treys, went five-of-five from the stripe and dished four assists.
“Right now he is our back up point guard, and he is another high, high IQ guy,” Hanson said. “He has an ability to finish, and because of it, he has ended games for us, like hitting those two threes when he did against Brock.
“He was already in school when he joined us at Christmas last year, and the timing has been excellent. We really needed him.”
The 6-foot-10, 225 pound Guzina is playing behind the ultra-productive 6-foot-10, 245 pound fifth-year senior Sukhman Sandhu, and that means making the most of any opportunities.
So when Hanson tapped him for action against the host Calgary Dinos as part of its Jack Simpson tourney earlier this month, he needed to be ready.
Without a doubt, the King George Dragons’ grad and second-year ‘Bird was ready.
“In our first game at Calgary he only played three minutes, so the next day I told him I was going to find him some minutes,” relayed Hanson. “So when we played Calgary (an 81-77 win), he got in for 22 minutes, and he was unstoppable.”
Last season as a freshman, Guzina saw action in just seven games, averaging 3.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in 5.9 minutes per game.
With extended minutes, in a tight game against a fierce conference rival, Guzina went 7-of-9 from the field, hit a three, made both of his free throws and finished with a much-needed 17 points, three rebounds, a block and a steal.
“I have high hopes for him and I think he will be an incredible player, so my job is to find minutes for him,” said Hanson, who last season flirted with the idea of keeping Guzina more on the perimeter, before determining that as a 4-5, he is showing the natural feel of a back-to-the-basket player versatile enough to score from an expanding base of points within the half court.
The 6-foot-4 guard has grown his game since graduating from West Vancouver’s Sentinel Secondary in 2016, spending his first three seasons in Kelowna with the Heat at UBC Okanagan, then changing the scenery to War Memorial Gymnasium.
Yet patience clearly had to be one of his strongest virtues.
Matthews, a dead-eye shooter, sat out 2019-20 as a transfer, then like everyone else, was forced to remain dormant from live-game action during the cancelled 2020-21 season.
Coming out of mothballs last season, he worked the rust off while coming off Hanson’s bench in 17 of 18 games, averaging 8.4 ppg.
This preseason, he’s averaged 17.5 ppg over his last four games and he’s shooting 39 per cent from three (18-of-46) overall.
“This is going to be his breakout year, he can be one of the best shooters in the country,” said Hanson. “He has size and he has confidence. Last year, with Grant Audu, our all-Canadian, it was tough for him to get the minutes he wanted. His job is going to be to score and to play defence on the bigger, stronger guards. He’s going to be rewarded this year for sticking it out.”
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