BURNABY — A mere three minutes of viewing may not be enough to constitute any kind of a scientific sample size.
Yet if you were among the small crowd gathered earlier this month for the CCA Div. 2 Canadian Tip-Off Classic at the Langley Events Centre, you might have at least developed a pretty strong hunch that a pair of Simon Fraser Red Leafs’ redshirt freshmen players from the same North Vancouver high school were well on their way to become foundational pieces for Canada’s lone NCAA basketball program.
This week, as SFU winds through its final few practices in advance of Saturday’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference-opening game in Bellingham (3 p.m.) against the Western Washington Vikings, our focus on the inroads B.C. players are continuing to make within the Red Leafs’ men’s program brings us to Matthys Van Bylandt and Tate Christiansen, former teammates with Handsworth Royals who have been afforded the rare of opportunity of extending their on-court camaraderie in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
It was during the aforementioned three-minute span back on Nov. 5, in what was ultimately a decisive loss to Austin, TX-based St. Edwards Hilltoppers, that the crowd got to see not only the pair’s unabashed willingness to make big plays, but the level of passion and emotion which seems to stride in lockstep with everything they do.
First, a Van Bylandt dunk off a baseline cut, then Christiansen squaring up on defence and forcing a turnover, and finally a mid-post pass from Van Bylandt to Christiansen for a three-pointer right in front of the opposition bench.
The video clip below highlighting both Van Bylandt (5) and Christiansen (22), courtesy of Ten Feet Sports and Entertainment, runs through that entire sequence:
And while their efforts could be viewed as being lost in what was a lopsided 86-54 St. Edwards’ win, there was no way to underscore the kind of launching point the game represented for both Christiansen (11 points) and Van Bylandt (seven points), who had both been held scoreless in the first two games of their respective university careers.
And after doing a little digging into their high school careers, it’s apparent that the pair have developed their irrepressible zeal for the game, in part, by challenging each other to be their best.
“I wear my heart on my sleeve and so does Thys (pronounced Tice),” says Christiansen, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound off-guard of both he and Van Bylandt, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound small forward. “We play basketball because we love the sport, and nothing else to it.”
MATTHYS VAN BYLANDT
As a Grade 10 starter on a Final Four team at the 2020 B.C. senior boys Quad-A basketball championships, he averaged 12 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Yet for the greater part of the next three seasons, due to circumstances out of his control, Matthys Van Bylandt would have to learn to play the waiting game.
*No basketball during his Grade 11 season due to the Covid-cancelled 2020-21 campaign.
*Just a handful of games over his Grade 12 season after tearing up his ankle in the preseason to such a degree that the word ‘sprain’ doesn’t do justice to what closer to a stew of torn ligaments and bone chips.
*Then last season, ready to finally begin his university career at SFU, he’s notified that he and several other freshmen would be taking redshirt seasons in which they would practice with, but not play in games with the team.
It’s been a level of adversity which has challenged him to grow, and the way Van Bylandt, or Thys (pronounced Tice) to his teammates and coaches, has emerged, he can’t help but prosper behind an approach to the game which mirrors the mindset of the lifelong student.
Along the way, his actions have spoken louder than his words, perhaps best exemplified in the way in which he fought every day to try and get on the court with his teammates over his final season high school season with the Royals.
“I got to school one day, maybe in the first couple of days of November, and Thys had this full boot on,” related Sam Pankiw, Van Bylandt’s high school coach at Handsworth over that 2021-22 senior season.
“At the time I think they thought it was a sprain, but essentially his ankle was broken for the entirety of his Grade 12 season.”
Pankiw knows the story by heart, yet he can’t help but be astounded by the fact that despite his condition, Van Bylandt was still able to play a handful of games.
“He might have played less than a dozen games for us. He’d tape it up, and then he’d convince me that he was feeling OK. Then he would play, and he would play fantastic. He’d score 30 points, he’d play 30 minutes. Then the next day he’d say that he over-did it. And for as good as he was, I don’t think I ever saw the full Matthys that season.”
The actual diagnosis of his ankle: Torn deltoid ligaments and a small break with floating bone fragments.
And it was that history which he brought to SFU last season, one which motivated him to get even bigger, stronger and faster in his quest to play a major role in the fortunes of his new team.
“It’s obviously hard at first,” he said, reflecting back on the news that he would be redshirting. “But you talk to your coaches from high school, you talk to your coaches now, to your teammates and you understand that it is a process and we’re super lucky to be playing as (redshirt) freshmen.
It’s realizing our roles and trying to come together as a team first,” he continued without a hint of bitterness. “Not to be selfish with your minutes and with your thoughts, but to think team first and strive to win.”
Hanson remembers scouting Van Bylandt during those ‘masks-on, extended spacing’ days of the pandemic, turning up once to watch him, only to learn that he was nursing a shoulder injury.
“I thought to myself ‘Man, this kid is like always hurt,’” Hanson said earlier this week with a chuckle. “So, I think he was a little under the radar. No one knew much about him. I just knew he had potential. I knew he had work ethic and athleticism and that he was a good guy to take a chance on if he got heathy.”
All of that has come true for Van Bylandt this fall.
“He’s been a great kid,” adds Hanson. “High motor. Best communicator on the team. He has a really high ceiling ahead of him.”
His progress over the last month has served as a confirmation of that ceiling.
Van Bylandt was the best SFU player on the floor this past Friday when the team led by as many as 17 points six minutes into the second half, but inexplicably dropped a 64-59 decision in Denver to Regis College.
“He scored some big buckets for us,” said Hanson after Van Bylandt came off the bench and turned in 27 minutes of determined play en rout to a game-high 11 points. “He did a lot of the dirty work.. you know, steals (three), deflections. He is that energy player that every team needs.”
Leading with stocism and by example, he’s a kid who seems to be wired by his intangibles.
“I want to go into each game with the same attacking mindset,” Van Bylandt explained earlier this month. “To improve every game, to take feedback when someone is yelling at me. And to learn from it. To not take it critically. Just improve, game by game.”
There are moments when players announce their personalities at the university level, perhaps by diving on the floor for a loose ball or taking a charge just mere seconds into their freshmen debuts.
And then there are debuts like the one SFU’s Tate Christiansen made, one which came in dramatic fashion over those aforementioned three minutes of required viewing we referenced to start our story.
With 4:15 left in that opening half against St. Edwards, teammate Van Bylandt had used a spin move to penetrate the mid-post, and after spotting Christiansen open along the sidelines right in front of the Hilltoppers’ bench, sent him a pass which he was able to step into perfectly.
Christiansen unfurled a three-point shot, watched it fall through the hoop, then let loose a celebratory scream, which combined with his body language, drew immediate ire from the visiting team’s head coach.
St. Edwards’ boss Andre Cook leapt off the bench and shouted at the officials, demanding a taunting foul that never came.
Afterwards, Christiansen admitted to perhaps going a little “over the top,” but was resolute in his belief that playing with an edge has made him the player he is.
“You can see it when I play,” he explained after his 11-point outing led the team in scoring. “I might say something or do something… people might think it’s stupid, but I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
When told of the way in which Christiansen inflamed the opposition bench with his three-point exultation, Pankiw’s hearty guffaw served as the perfect acknowledgement that the same beans which fuelled his former player’s game in high school would be the same ones which would continue to define him at the university level.
“That’s Tate,” Pankiw began. “He is just the most committed guy. Anything he puts his mind to, he can achieve it, whether that is on the basketball court or academic-wise. When it’s all said and done, he is just that guy who wants to outwork everybody in the gym.”
Christiansen hails from as sturdy a basketball stock as you’re apt to fine, and it has no doubt helped him shape his passion for the game.
His dad Axel played for the UBC Thunderbirds in 1989-90, and his uncle Derek, the latter one of the most explosive players of his generation in B.C., followed him to the Point Grey campus in the early 1990s. Both played their high school ball at Sentinel Secondary, a 10-minute drive away from Handsworth.
As well, Tate’s mom Karen (nee Brydon) played for the Alberta Pandas (1990-95) and was the team MVP in 1995.
And if there is one thing he can already do at the university level, it’s to shoot the heck out of the basketball.
So much so that Hanson has asked him to focus on that as he learns to grow out the rest of his game in the GNAC.
“Early on in November, he was trying to do too much,” said Hanson. “He wanted to be a high-energy guy and a creator, too. But I said to him ‘…sometimes we need a guy that can just come in and knock down wide-open shots’. I said ‘Shoot the ball, shoot the ball, shoot the ball,’ and when he has done that, he has been very good.”
Adds Pankiw, who can see Christiansen’s versatility and how it could really blossom in coming seasons: “He has great agility. His handles are great for a guy that is not a point guard. But he has size, too. You can give him the ball in the post and he can go man-to-man with anybody.”
When it came to the news that he was going to redshirt last season, Christiansen took it understandably hard.
These days, however, he has come to see the benefits.
“I loved B.C. high school basketball, but it doesn’t translate too well to the D-2 level,” he said. “So taking that year, to really work on yourself and give 100 per cent to get better every day, it’s super valuable. I don’t think it should be looked down upon.”
Yet he is who he is, and the greatest part of his charm is his unapologetic but always well-intentioned nature.
And that is what everyone at the LEC saw earlier this month when he got on the scoresheet for the first time in his university career.
It’s why nothing could cork the well-spring of emotion suppressed in the deepest regions of his basketball soul.
“It was the cultivation of a year of sitting on the sidelines in a track suit,” he said. “I love my guys. I loved watching them play last year. But it’s just waiting and waiting, and working and working. A year is a long time. So just to be able to come out on the court and hit that shot, it was just elation, man. That is what I work for… that is what I want to be able to bring to this team.”
A FINE PAIR
Van Bylandt and Christiansen are indeed a pair cut from the same basketball cloth, and although they are stylistically different, maybe it’s no surprise to see that over Simon Fraser’s first nine games (2-7) their numbers are surprisingly similar.
Despite the fact that Van Bylandt has started five games while Christiansen has come exclusively off the bench, each has scored 32 points for identical 3.6 ppg averages.
Even more crazy? The pair have each shot 11-for-28 from the field for identical .393 field goal percentages.
Ask Pankiw about the pair’s presence as the unquestioned leaders of their former Handsworth Royals’ team and you get a picture of what their future place might be with the Red Leafs.
“They were the two guys pushing everyone in practice the whole year,” he began. “On our runs, if we weren’t running as fast as we should have been, they were going to be the first to tell you. If you were on the free throw line in practice and they were on the opposite team, it didn’t matter if it was a drill or a breakdown, they wanted to win. Every single moment they’d push their teammates, they’d trash talk the ones who were on the other side. And then after practice, everyone’s buddies again.”
That’s the story that really tells you everything you need to know.
Recruiting young athletes is never an exact science, and for Hanson and all the other basketball coaches, that was never more apparent than during the 2020-21 season lost to the pandemic.
Yet Hanson saw enough in the small windows afforded him to offer both Tate and Thys a spot in the SFU program, one which they accepted in early December, with their senior seasons barely underway.
“We took a bit of a risk,” admitted Hanson, based on the fact that all of their scouting had been during the Covid-cancelled season.
“But I always liked how hard they worked, and the fact that they had size and athleticism. I thought they would become great program guys, which is now what they are becoming.”
QUINN KEAST NO REGRETS TOURNEY AT HANDSWORTH
In keeping with the theme of today’s story, Handsworth Secondary will play the host role at the annual Quinn Keast No Regrets invitational, Dec. 7-9. The event features a 16-team boys draw and an eight-team girls draw with games being played at Handsworth as well as surrounding schools Carson Graham, Collingwood and Mulgrave.
The Handsworth girls face Burnaby Central in the host gymnasium at 12:15 p.m. on Dec. 7.
The Handsworth boys will follow play at 2 p.m. against the Nanaimo District Islanders.
The respective girls and boys championship finals will tip off Saturday at 4:45 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at Handsworth.
RED LEAFS WRAP UP 2023 IN LAS VEGAS
The SFU men’s team will head to Las Vegas to wrap up the 2023 portion of its schedule with games at the High Desert Classic Dec. 18 against Rogers State (Okla) and Dec. 19 against Colorado Mesa.
When the Red Leafs will play their GNAC home opener Jan. 4 against St. Martin’s, it will come on the heels of having played seven of their prior nine games away from Burnaby Mountain. The home stand continues with a Jan. 6 visit from Western Oregon.