Battling through the COVID-cancelled season and re-emerging as a scoing and rebounding force for Simon Fraser basketball, 7-foot senior Julian Roche is playing the best basketball of his career. He suits up Thursday for SFU's GNAC home opener against Alaska Fairbanks. (Photo by Paul Yates property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Men's Basketball

Julian be nimble, Julian be quick! Now 75 pounds lighter, here’s why Simon Fraser’s 7-foot centre Julian Roche is playing the best basketball of his career!

BURNABY — The biggest man on Burnaby Mountain is standing taller than ever.

Julian Roche has stopped growing, yet there seems little question these days that Simon Fraser’s 7-foot senior centre is reaching new heights in every part of his life, including on the court where his team-leading 15.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game are among the surest indicators that he’s been playing the best basketball of his life.

“There have been some things going on in the world, and some things going in my own personal life that were difficult, but now I feel like I am getting back to where I was,” admitted Roche, 24, after practice on Tuesday as SFU (6-3, 1-0) continued preparations for its 2021-22 Great Northwest Athletic Conference home opener Thursday (7 p.m.) at the West Gym against the Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks (3-5, 0-2).

(On Tuesday, the GNAC announced that due to health and safety protocols within the Alaska Anchorage team, that the Seawolves’ Saturday visit to SFU had been postponed with no immediate make-up date scheduled)

It was within the throes of the COVID-cancelled 2020-21 campaign that Roche experienced a pair of polar-opposite moments, each revelatory in nature, which when taken together pushed the St. John, NB native and Santa Clara University transfer to fully tap into the wellspring of his potential and contribute greatly to what may well be the best Simon Fraser men’s basketball team in its past decade-plus at the NCAA level.

“I’d be lying if I said all of that wasn’t on my mind,” said Roche when asked if the daily grind of last season, one which offered no reward of games, made him consider cutting short his university career with a season of eligibility remaining.

“There were some cold, dark days, getting up at six in the morning with no games in the foreseeable future and not knowing what the world was going to be like in one or two years,” he continued. “I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I didn’t know if I was going to play another game.”

Yet playing out alongside all of that for Roche was another issue, this one ‘weighty’ enough to eventually provide the catalyst which led him down his path of re-invention.

When Roche arrived at SFU as an NCAA Div. 1 drop-down from Santa Clara University in time for the 2018-19 season, he was a lean 230-pounder who opened eyes around the GNAC by averaging 13.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

All of that led to the question of ‘How much more effective could a heavier, stronger version of Roche be?’

But throughout a 2019-20 season in which he seemed more lethargic at 270 pounds, his numbers dropped to 8.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

All of that then carried over into last season’s cancelled campaign, over which time Roche says he eventually tipped the scales at his heaviest weight of 292 pounds.

It was around that time that he asked himself some very important questions.

“It was ‘What do I want my legacy to be in this program?’” he said. “Do I want to be remembered as one of the best to play here? Do I want to play professionally?”

Three definitive answers later, and Roche had started to turn the corner.

“I asked myself what it was going to take,” he said. “It was going to take a new diligence. It was going to take a focus on my diet. A focus on the weight room.

“It was going to take… above and beyond.”

In the best physical shape of his life, Simon Fraser’s Julian Roche has brought a rippled look to his No. 35 game-day jersey this season. (Photo by Paul Yates property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

WHO’S THAT GUY?

Simon Fraser head coach Steve Hanson remembers the first time he cast his eyes on the new Julian Roche, back in August.

“As soon as I saw him, I was just wholly gosh, he looked like a completely different human being,” recounted Hanson of Roche, who had just returned to the Burnaby Mountain campus for the start of fall classes.

“The first thing I said to him was, and it’s one of the most awkward questions I’ve asked a player, ‘Take your shirt off,’” continued Hanson with a chuckle. “And he was just shredded. You know, abs from his chest down to his waist.”

Hanson then took a photo of Roche from the neck to the waist and sent it to former assistant coach Mike Hayward with the caption ‘Who’s this?’”

As Hanson recounts, Hayward simply could not believe Roche had undergone such a drastic physical transformation.

How drastic was it?

“I was 292 pounds during the COVID year, , and now I am 217 pounds, today,” said Roche with pride. “I am about 75 pounds lighter.”

Getting to the floor like a guard to contest a loose ball, SFU’s Julian Roche is now a truly nimble big man. (Photo by Paul Yates property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

A HALF CREAM, TWO SUGARS… PLEASE

Put the re-invented Julian Roche into play these days with fellow front-court types like Jas Singh, Jordan Lyons and Wilfried Balata, and you’ve got a group as unique and dangerous as any quartet you’ll find in Div. 2 basketball.

Each is a story unto himself, and in the case of Roche, it’s all added up to one word: Nimble.

It’s what Hanson saw when Simon Fraser went to Bellingham on Dec. 4 and beat the host Western Washington Vikings at Sam Carver Gym in overtime by an 82-80 score.

“He is such a great defensive rebounder, but I think we’re finding some different ways to get him the ball,” said Hanson of Roche, who went 11-of-15 from the field, and finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three steals. “Not just in the post, but more in ball screens away from the basket. That was a big part of win against Western Washington… the mid pick-and-roll game with him and (point guard) David (Penney) and getting their big guys away from the hoop to guard him. That was pretty fun to watch.”

Penney, dishing 5.2 assists-per-game (second in overall games by GNAC teams) as a sophomore, has developed great trust with Roche, now nimble enough to, as Hanson explains it “run to the rim” and put the finishing touch on just about anything his point guard offers.

Letting his true athleticism shine at his lighter playing weight, Simon Fraser’s Julian Roche has thrived in the midrange pick-and-roll game with point guard David Penney this season. (Photo by Paul Yates property of SFU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Earlier in our story, we referenced two ‘revelatory’ moments for Roche, and how taken together, they have come to form the two ends of a bridge he has spanned to arrive at his current station, one where he sits in the GNAC’s Top 10 in five major overall statistical categories, including third in rebounding and ninth in scoring.

The first was wondering if he would even play this season.

The second was the purpose he brought to his re-awakening once he decided his best was yet to come.

“I spent 66 days in quarantine last year during our cancelled season,” he says in a tone which tells you that he indeed counted each and every one of them.

“During that time, I dedicated myself to studying nutrition. I dedicated myself to my craft, to studying film, to whatever I could to get a little bit better at basketball. I was in lockdown and I would just ask myself ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ I did 100s of push-ups, 100s of sit-ups. I was on YouTube looking up nutritionists, looking up scholarly articles.

“I was trying to get any advantage I could,” he added, “and I feel at this point I have figured out exactly what I can eat to feel great, not get hurt, bounce back from injuries, to have a great physique and to be in a good mental state.”

All of that, as he references, has spilled over into other areas of his life, not least of which is the classroom, where he is on track to graduate this spring. Roche excelled over the last term, posting a 3.75 GPA as a biology major.

And while he knows that the current state of global health makes import positions on overseas pro basketball teams a tougher nut than usual to try and crack, he says he will bring his humble best to the table to try and make that dream a reality following his time on the hill.

“More than himself, I couldn’t believe how happy his teammates were for him,” said Hanson. “They know what he has been through over the past three years, and it’s been really good to see all of this happen.”

And it started, during a time of personal crisis, by taking control of one moment at a time.

“I have logged my food for about 500 days in a row,” Roche says proudly. “Before I started logging everything, I would just eat and not even think about it. It was ‘Oh, it tastes good.’ Like the Oreos in my cupboard. I’d have two or three Oreos. Between that and a half-glass of milk, that’s 200 calories. You don’t think about that stuff unless you are writing it down.

“Now, when I look in the mirror, I see a world-class athlete. I look like I could play in the NBA and I don’t think I’d ever trade that for just being able to eat whatever I want,” adds Roche, who once his basketball-playing days are over holds aspirations to both coach and work in the healthcare world.

And along the way, he will continue to reward himself with his one daily treat.

“A large Tim Horton’s coffee with half a cream and two sugars,” he says with a well-earned unapologetic tone.

Put it all together, and it’s why the biggest man on Burnaby Mountain is standing taller than ever.

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