BURNABY — It’s only a jigsaw puzzle when you don’t know how the pieces are supposed to fit.
And last Friday, as point guard Michael Provenzano dropped a triple to knot the score early in the second half of its 2018-19 season-opener on the road against the host and nationally-ranked UC San Diego Tritons, you very quickly got the feeling that Simon Fraser head coach Steven Hanson is not puzzled in the least at what his new-look Clan is supposed to look like.
SFU wound up falling 69-54 to a Tritons team not only ranked 24th in the NCAA D2 preseason poll, but picked to contend for the California Collegiate Athletic Association title with the return of one of the nation’s best in junior centre Chris Hansen.
Yet Simon Fraser, which followed with a 67-64 loss Saturday to the Tritons’ CCAA rivals from Cal State Dominguez Hills, are looking so much more ready to compete over the early stages of the season, despite the fact that there has been a huge turnover from last season’s 10-18 campaign, which included a 4-16 record in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Take Friday’s season-opener against the Tritons.
Of the 10 SFU players who saw the floor, only three did likewise last season.
Guards Michael Provenzano and Othniel Spence, front-and-centre mainstays this season, along with veteran reserve guard Bowen Bakken, combined to play just 65 of the 200 available player-minutes, a total which works out to just 32.5 per cent.
Yes, Jordan Muir-Keung is battling a nagging juniry, and yes, Sam Bailey (redshirt), Drew Bryson (redshirt) and Graham Miller (ACL) were with the program last season.
Yet the versatile pure-freshman swingman Wifried Balata, who logged 36 minutes in his impressive Clan debut, along with transfers Jas Singh (Northwest College) and Michael Hannan (Pierce College) all seemed to effectively embrace their roles early.
So if you head up to SFU’s West Gym Friday and Saturday for its inaugural four-team SFU Showdown invitational tournament (full tournament draw below), you’re apt to notice a very different Clan team than last season’s, one which was centred around the now-graduated guard Kedar Salam who led the GNAC in scoring at 21.8 ppg, while averaging 16 field-goal attempts per game, a total which was 27 per cent of his team’s entire shot total.
“A lot of our offence last year was NBA-type isolation, and it was because we had that type of player,” admitted Hanson, whose team opens Showdown action Friday with a 7p.m. game against another CCAA team in Arcata’s Humboldt State Broncos.
“This year, it will be different for everyone,” continued Hanson. “The ball is just moving, and it’s more of a five-man team game. This year we have a lot of weapons, and a lot of guys who can shoot”
From a veteran standpoint, it’s the duo of Ontario junior guards Provenzano and Spence who are the engine-room of the 2018-19 team.
Provenzano is a primary ball-handler, his commanding dribble and ability to create off pick-and-roll situations making him an invaluable part of the starting rotation.
Spence had a breakout sophomore campaign, and the team’s leading returning scorer (9.1 ppg) is seemingly built to play high-tempo basketball, both from a run-and-gun offensive perspective, and from a pressuring, steals-minded approach on defence.
Muir-Keung, now a senior, can make the veteran side of the Clan’s back-court depth chart a plus strength when compared to the rest of the GNAC. He is just coming off a groin/hip flexor issue which has dogged him thus far in the preseason.
Of course, there are jigsaw puzzle pieces within the incoming part of the guard group as well, pieces that Hanson hopes add a dimension of increased depth and versatility.
Miller, the 6-foot-8 Dr. Charles product, just eight months removed from ACL surgery, can swing to the front court, but in a guard role, he not only brings huge length but a reliable three-point stroke.
Bryson, a 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman from Arlington High School, just north of Everett, has entered gyms all his life with the reputation of being a shooter, and in Saturday’s loss to Dominguez Hills scored a team-high 16 points off the bench, going 6-of-7 from the field.
“He really got it going Saturday,” nodded Hanson. “He hit a three about eight feet behind the line so he has that great range, but he also has a very explosive first step and can make some nice passes. He’s a multi-faceted guy who hangs his hat on his shooting.”
Montreal native Balata, at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, has leapt right into the mix, bringing athleticism and a physical mindset to the fore, and immediately showing the ability to guard all over the court.
“The first thing you realize when you meet him is that nothing fazes him,” said Hanson of a kid who brings a little of what both graduated seniors JJ Pankratz and Iziah Sherman-Newsome provided in terms of versatility, toughness and the ability to bridge the front and back courts. “He’s so mentally head-strong, and because Jordan was hurt, he had no issues running the team at point for 10-to-12 minutes. In scrimmages, he’s played at the four, so he can handle and guard all over the place. And he’s 6-4 but he has a 6-9 wingspan.”
Seniors Bakken out of Delta Secondary and energy man Bongani Moyo also return, while Hannan, a Spokane Valley native, joins the team as a junior transfer.
Simon Fraser’s front court, however, is where the biggest changes look to have taken place.
Much has been made of the signing of Santa Clara transfer Julian Roche, the 6-foot-10 St. John, NB centre.
On year ago, the Clan had been hoping that E.J. Christie, a seven-footer, 6-foot-9 Matthew O’Brien, and 6-foot-8 Tyrell Lewin would develop into some kind of future front court committee, but that trio, along with 6-foot-7 Aleks Vranjes have all left the program.
“Being a red-shirt and getting limited playing time at Santa Clara, those first two games we played were two of the most meaningful in his university career, so I am sure he had lots of butterflies,” Hanson said of Roche. “But by Saturday, he was feeling really solid, changing shots out there and really settling in. I think his growth will be exponential, and he’s the kind of big guy inside that we just haven’t had here.”
Singh, at 6-foot-8, 210 pounds and from Delta Secondary, comes in as a sophomore; and the versatile, athletic and energetic Bailey as a redshirt freshman out of Vancouver College.
That trio along with Miller at various times, provided the front court minutes over the weekend.
Which begs the question: How long will it take for so many new pieces to come together and find a little polish?
“We saw the improvement from the Friday to the Saturday,” said Hanson. “One day later we were getting easier looks. We’re going as quick as we can, but we have a lot of new things in on offence, so the focus is to be there by the end of November.”
Simon Fraser will host PacWest teams Columbia Bible College on Nov. 22 and Capilano University on Nov. 24 to wrap up its six-game preseason.
It then opens GNAC play with two games on the road, Nov. 29 at Western Oregon and Dec. 1 at Concordia.
Non-conference home games Dec. 18 against Langara and Dec. 30 against Trinity Western bring the holiday season to a close.
The Clan’s GNAC home-opener doesn’t happen until Jan. 3 when St. Martin’s pays a visit to the West Gym.
THE SFU SHOWDOWN
(all games at SFU-West Gym)
5 p.m. — Western Washington vs. Minnesota State-Moorhead
7 p.m. — SFU vs. Humboldt State
5 p.m. — Western Washington vs. Humboldt State
7 p.m. — Simon Fraser vs. Minnesota State-Moorhead
(SFU’s Friday and Saturday games will be streamed on Clan TV)
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