BURNABY — Want to know who might have had the biggest turnaround this season in all of NCAA men’s basketball, regardless of division?
This isn’t pretending to be any kind of conclusive thesis on the topic, but if the Simon Fraser Clan aren’t at least in the discussion, you’d have to be pretty surprised.
From the start of the 2015-16 Great Northwest Athletic Conference season through the first seven games of the recently-concluded GNAC regular season, the Clan compiled a record of 8-59.
In the 13 games that represented the rest of the current season which just concluded Saturday, SFU went 8-5.
Think about that for a second.
What took the program 67 games over almost four seasons to accomplish, the current team matched in just 13 games spread over 39 days.
And in the end, it was fittingly just enough to send the team which the conference’s 10 other coaches voted to finish in last place at the start of the campaign, into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
Yet if the Clan’s long-suffering fan base had reason to exhale Saturday as Simon Fraser qualified for the post-season with a 9-11 record, the team itself professes that nothing much will change when the second season tips off at the GNAC tournament Thursday at Bellingham’s Western Washington University against the Northwest Nazarene Nighthawks and its freshly-minted conference Player of the Year Adonis Arms.
“Our mentality the last five-to-six weeks has been the playoff mentality,” said SFU head coach Steve Hanson on Monday. “We’ve been grinding every night and we’re battle-tested, so I don’t think Thursday will be a massive difference. Both teams are going to have a bit of a chip on their shoulders having lost their final two games of the season.”
Hanson, lead assistant John Curcio and the rest of the Clan coaching staff have worked towards and ultimately witnessed an amazing turnaround in team culture with this roster.
Holdovers like guards Michael Provenzano, Othniel Spence and Jordan Muir-Keung have melded with a mixed bag of freshmen and transfers like Julian Roche, Jasdeep Singh and Wilfried Balata to equal a unit which not only plays as a team but has its most balanced core of contributors since joining the NCAA for the GNAC’s 2010-11 season.
In fact only 3.4 points-per-game separate the team’s top five scorers this season from Spence (13.7) to Balata (13.5) to Roche (13.3) to Singh (11.3) to Provenzano (10.3).
“Exactly,” agrees Hanson when reminded how important that balance has been this season. “If you look at all five of those guys, all five of them have had big games this season. It’s great for us. You can’t key on one guy. We’ve also got great role players, too. A guy like Michael Hannan has started some games. But those five guys have all been pretty efficient.”
Last season, Hanson’s second as head coach after being elevated from the lead assistant’s chair, saw a drastically different dynamic in play over a four-win conference season. Senior guard Kedar Salam led the GNAC at 21.8 ppg, yet the second-highest scorer, J.J. Pankratz, checked in at 10.7 and SFU had no other double-digit scorers on the team.
A big part of that overall balance has also come because of the dual productivity being registered by both the back-, and this season, the front-court. The emergence of Singh in concert with the already highly-regarded Santa Clara transfer Roche, as well as the swing capabilities of the pure freshman Balata has given this season’s Clan team a completeness it has never had since becoming an NCAA program.
In its key home-floor win over Western Washington on Feb. 26, Singh, a Delta Pacers high school product from Ladner who transferred from NAIA Northwest College (formerly Northwest Bible College) in Kirkland, Wash., scored a career-high 30 points.
In a loss to Portland’s Concordia Cavaliers two nights later, Balata, a powerful guard-forward and pure freshman from Montreal, scored 30 points in a loss.
The impact that Singh has had in concert with the 6-foot-11 Roche has been transformative to say the least for a team which for so long sought to have a front court presence which brought the requisite skill, depth and versatility to match up with the big boys of the GNAC.
Roche, on the limp and playing sparingly the past two games, is hoping to be a lot more healthy for the start of Thursday’s sudden-elimination playoff game against a Nighthawks team which this season split its two meetings with SFU.
That would be such welcome news to the Clan’s long-suffering fan base because, as Hanson says, if Roche and Singh are back together again, singing the same old song, Simon Fraser is a different team.
“We were crunching the numbers and looking at the stats, and when Julian and Jas get more touches and have big games, we have won,” says Hanson. “And they have given our guards higher percentage looks and higher free throw trips.
“In this age, where we all love the three, those two guys are so efficient. I think they are the best front-court duo in the league.”
And just how long has this long-suffering fan base waited for something to truly get excited about?
Simon Fraser’s last playoff game took place nine years ago, in March of 2010, when the Clan lost 78-68 loss to UBC in the third-fourth place game at the Canada West Final Four at the ‘Birds own War Memorial Gym.
That season it was a 14-4 team led by Matt Kuzminski of Dover Bay, the Argyle Pipers’ duo of Sean Burke and Kevin Shaw and Kwantlen Park’s Eric Burrell.
By the next season (2010-11), SFU had left U Sports (formerly CIS) for a return to their U.S.-based roots which first began in the NAIA.
And now, nine years later, the post-season has finally returned.
No. 6 Simon Fraser faces No. 3 Northwest Nazarene in its opener Thursday at 5:15 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., No. 4 Western Oregon meets No. 5 Montana State Billings.
Seattle Pacific (5:15 p.m.) and Saint Martin’s (7:30 p.m) face the winners on Friday.
Saturday’s final tips off at 7:35 p.m.
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