BURNABY — You’ve no doubt heard that old cliché which labels a basketball team in transition as one going through a changing of the guard.
Well, the Simon Fraser Clan men’s basketball team will live all of that out in a very literal sense when they take to the court for what everyone hopes will be a traditional late-fall start to the 2020-21 college basketball season.
Three of SFU’s top four this past season in both scoring and minutes-played will not be with the team this coming season, including the graduated senior guard tandem of Michael Provenzano and Othniel Spence.
As well, Jas Singh, the team’s leading scorer and one of the GNAC’s most versatile talents, is expected to take a redshirt season to better streamline his academic and athletic responsibilities at the school.
Singh, a Delta Secondary grad, transferred to SFU two seasons ago from an NAIA Christian-based university in the U.S.
Thus depending on your perspective, the Clan’s refurbished depth chart can be looked upon as either one filled with daunting challenges, or as one filled with opportunity for the program’s deep reservoir of recruits, all seeming ready to break out of the shadows of practices and intra-squad heroics and establish an identity of their own.
While stalwarts Julian Roche and Wilfried Balata return as anchors in the front court, Simon Fraser’s backcourt, for the first time since Hanson took over as head coach in 2016-17, returns as a group with no starting experience from the season before.
Actually, that’s not fully correct.
David Penney made two starts as part of a promising rookie campaign and seems ready to assume full-time starting duties following Provenzano’s four-year hold on the team’s starting point guard position.
As well, Drew Bryson, the rising redshirt junior from Arlington, Wash., seems ready to assume the starting off-guard role after coming off the bench the past two seasons.
Today we break down the Clan’s personnel starting with the forwards and finishing with the guards:
HOW THE FRONTCOURT WILL FIND ITS FIT
The 6-foot-8 Singh enjoyed a breakout season as a junior this past season, leading the team at 16.1 ppg, so he’ll unquestionably be missed.
Singh is an excellent student, and Hanson stressed the redshirt season simply aligns his remaining academic course load with that of his athletic eligibility at Simon Fraser.
The Ladner native had spent the first season of his career playing at NAIA Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash., before coming to SFU to begin the 2018-19 season.
The redshirt season would allow him make his return to the Clan as a senior in 2021-22, the same year he is expected to graduate.
That means a huge level of responsibility falls on the combined shoulders of the team’s top two rebounders in 6-foot-11 rising senior Julian Roche, and dynamic 6-foot-4 rising junior Wilfried Balata.
Roche went into the last off-season with the goal to increase his upper-body strength, and while that was successful, the situation never developed where he was able to put that part of his game together with all of his many other strengths.
“I think the upper body strength helped him, guys were bouncing off him,” said Hanson who also knows just how nimble and fleet a more compact Roche can be in an uptempo setting. “But I think we like him more at 240 (pounds) versus 265.”
If that happens, and if Balata, an under-sized by powerful forward with a penchant for physicality, can return to the form he showed in the first half of last season, the Clan will have as tough and effective a front-court duo as there is in the conference.
“Going into the Christmas break, I think he was the (GNAC) Player of the Year,” said Hanson of Balata, who was averaging around 18 points and nine rebounds per game. “But in our first game back after the break he tweaked his ankle and it just wasn’t the same after that.”
Without Singh, Hanson appreciates just how much the team will count on the pair to perform this season.
“They are pretty weather-tested,” he said. “There were times last year, and even in Wil’s first year where we could move him to power forward and we could be fine because Julian just takes up so much space. But in the new year, Jas really stepped it up with the scoring piece.”
To that end, incoming transfer recruit Devin Collins, a 6-foot-5, 185-pound rising junior from Dawson CC in Glendive, Montana, seems heaven sent.
“He just has a real nose for the ball,” said Hanson. “He is an under-sized forward but he definitely can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot the three.
“And what we also love about him is that when we look at late-game situations, his ability to guard a two, three or four from his forward position is pretty crucial. We really like that.”
Collins averaged 10 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 36 per cent from distance for a Dawson team which went a perfect 14-0 in its conference, and he’ll be a senior along with Singh and Balata by the time the 2021-22 season tips off.
Hanson says the roster is not yet complete, so it would not be a surprise if he had more forwards to announce.
Graham Miller (Dr. Charles Best) has departed via graduation following an injury-plagued career, while former B.C. Quad-A MVP Jusuf Sehic (Burnaby South) has transferred to Thompson Rivers, leaving 6-foot-8 rising sophomore and CEGEP Champlain St. Lambert product Cory Nzigamasabo as the only other forward currently on the roster.
“I think Cory is coming in the with the attitude to play more minutes,” says Hanson of Nzigamasabo who averaged 2.2 points in 8.9 minutes per game last season while battling a chronic knee injury. “There’s times where he can start at the five or play at the four and it’s going to come down to what kind of offseason he has.”
A PLETHORA OF GUARDS
Consider that last season, Provenzano and Spence combined to average 62 of the 200 available player-minutes per game, or what amount to almost one-third (31 per cent) of the team’s entire minutes. And the season before they averaged a combined 61 minutes.
Consider also that the Clan continued to bring in backcourt recruits in pretty high volume over those two seasons, to the point where there is now a large group of dues-paying guards ready to battle for the holy grail of actual on-court GNAC minutes.
Off-guard Drew Bryson, a 2017 recruit out of Arlington, Wash., who was immediately redshirted, has a chance to claim a starting spot and unleash a shooting stroke which was legendary in his high school days.
Bryson and Colton Northrup, a 6-foot-4, 185 pound redshirt freshman out of Richland, Wash., will likely battle for the majority of those minutes.
“We leaned on Othniel to defend the other team’s best perimetre player, so Drew will have to step into that role next season,” said Hanson. “(Northrup’s) an outstanding shooter, too, so he’s going to be pushing Drew as much as possible. I think Drew has probably earned that starting spot but at the same time, there’s a lot minutes in practice to earn time. Both he and Drew are uncanny shooters, so regardless, we’re going to have scoring coming off the bench.”
Penney, a Guelph, Ont., native who arrived atop Burnaby Mountain last season via Virginia’s Middleburg Academy, showed plenty in 12 minutes per game to suggest he is ready to run the team as its new fulltime starting point guard.
“He looks to distribute and really push the pace and I think in any other year he would have played more but it was Mike’s senior year,” Hanson said of trying to find time for Penney to acclimate himself while Provenzano was setting new career conference standards for starts and minutes played.
Also within the rotation is Dylan McPhee, a 6-foot-5 guard/forward out of Aurora, Ont., and Florida’s DME Sports Academy.
Matt Kiatipis, the 6-foot-3 freshman who saw spot minutes last season at the off guard, has elected to leave the program and recently signed with the Young Harris Mountain Lions, a Div. 2 program in Georgia.
Mikkel Aarnes, a 6-foot guard who took a redshirt last season as a freshman has elected to return to his native Norway.
The Clan also has signed a pair of 6-foot-4, 180-pound combo guards as part of its incoming freshman class in Vancouver College’s Hunter Cruz-Dumont, and Markham, Ont.’s Jovan Rai, from the Toronto Basketball Academy.
The duo bring SFU’s guard contingent to six players.
Hanson had gotten to know the coaches at the TBA well over the past four years, but admits that while many of its graduates have gone on to Div. 1 careers “a lot of them, to be quite honest, they just haven’t been SFU students.
“So when I started to her about Jovan and his SAT score and then I dug a little deeper and heard about his older brother (6-6 rising senior Aaryn Rai) at Dartmout studying neuroscience, I said ‘This kid sounds like an SFU-type kid,’” continued Hanson of Jovan Rai. “I talked to a former coach of his who really feels that like Hunter, he’s a little later maturing physically… a sleeper, but that he’s a competitor, a great athlete and has all of the IQ pieces.”
Cruz-Dumont was a special player over his career with the Fighting Irish, and like Rai, has all the tools to play either backcourt spot as he continues to grow into his frame.
“It’s funny because I was a year older when played against John in high school,” remembers Hanson of his playing days at Terry Fox when he would oppose the Irish and Cruz-Dumont’s late father John.
“I just remember the growth spurt (John Dumont) went through from Grade 11 to 12. He grew like five inches and was lanky and skinny. (Hunter) is a legit 6-4, he’s a tall guard with all of the tenacity the Cruz-Dumont’s all have. And I have always said it’s easy to put muscle on talented players.”
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