David Penney (centre, 3) and the rest of the 2020-21 Simon Fraser basketball team will hold an intrasquad scrimmage early next month. (Photo property of Simon Fraser athletics 2020. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Men's Basketball

Simon Fraser men’s basketball: An ‘attitude of gratitude’ remains their daily motto as 2020-21 season hangs by a thread

BURNABY — Simon Fraser basketball still has about two weeks to wait before it learns whether or not it will be able to beat the odds and have some semblance of a conference basketball schedule.

That said, the odds seem longer than a full-court Hail, Mary prayer to beat the buzzer at the team’s West Gym facility atop Burnaby Mountain.

Yet according to Steve Hanson, the head coach of the men’s team, heads are not hanging as Simon Fraser players go about the daily task of getting better in these unprecedented times.

“I think the spirit has been really good,” Hanson said on Thursday afternoon. “There’s a lot of unknowns but we’ve talked about having an attitude of gratitude every day.”

While Hanson said Nov. 15 is something of a decision day in terms of news regarding the future of basketball this season at the NCAA Div. 2 level and within the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, the program is pushing forward with positivity, announcing plans to hold an intrasquad scrimmage, set to tip off at noon on Saturday, Nov. 7.

SFU has been able to put in 12 total team hours together per week under current guidelines, and that has included plenty of actual practice time.

Yet Hanson felt it was important for his players to break the regular routine, especially with no actual games on the immediate horizon.

“Absolutely, this is something we’re doing on purpose to give them something to look forward to,” he said of the scrimmage. “Most importantly, it gives us a target. We want certain things installed and for us to have some semblance of a five-on-five game, there has to be some organization, and so that has brought something to our practices that we have been looking for, and that is more urgency.”

And of course, there will be more than a little curiosity regarding the content of talent expected to be on display and how it will be divided for the scrimmage.

In such unprecedented times, it’s almost impossible to predict what the face of SFU men’s basketball will be one year from now, given the fact that while no player loses eligibility this season if actual games are not played, it’s anyone’s guess whether players on track for graduation over this 2020-21 campaign have made plans to return next fall to pursue additional studies.

Put everything together, and all Hanson and Co. can do is work with what they have in the present moment even if it means the fruits of their current efforts are geared more to the 2021-22 season.

SFU head coach Steve Hanson is making the most of his team’s NCAA-mandated 12 hours of team activity per week as basketball atop Burnaby Mountain faces an uncertain future in 2020-21. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2020. All Rights Reserved)

And if you take out that crystal ball, you can see just how deep, varied and skilled the Simon Fraser front court can potentially be if its full compliment of players returns, including 6-foot-11 centre Julian Roche.

The 2020-21 season was supposed to be his senior campaign but if he doesn’t use eligibility then Roche, who started 27 games a season ago (8.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game) would be part of what would be an imposing collection of forward types.

That’s because the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, 6-foot-8 Jasdeep Singh, who averaged 16.1 ppg and had decided earlier this spring to take a redshirt season to better streamline his academic and athletic pursuits, would also return as a senior.

Powerful 6-foot-4 rising junior Wilfried Balata, last season’s leading rebounder (6.8 rpg) and third-leading scorer (13.4 ppg), completes a trio of talent already blessed with chemistry.

We’ve already noted earlier this past off-season of the impact Devin Collins, a 6-foot-5 rising junior transfer from the Montana junior college system will have with his ability to stretch the floor via his shooting range, but since our last report in April, Hanson has bolstered the top end of that group with a pair of additions.

The quickest impact will come from 6-foot-7 senior Jordan Lyons, who book-ended a junior college season in 2018-19 at Vincennes (Ind.) with two different NCAA Div. 1 schools.

Lyons didn’t get to play much as a freshman at Southern Utah, but last season, the Brampton native averaged 23 minutes per game in the SWAC with Mississippi Valley State.

Lyons, back home in Ontario, where he has already taken his first SFU midterms online through the school’s Beedie School of Business, is the only Simon Fraser player not currently with the team at its Burnaby Mountain campus.

“He is a big-time athlete, no doubt about it,” said Hanson who saw Lyons play at Orangeville Prep (2015-16). “He can play in the post and he can play on the perimetre and so he can be versatile with what we want to do. If we want to get up and down the floor and pressure the ball a bit, he is a guy we can play small with at a forward position.”

And if Lyons is a prized veteran, then Paul Didenko, the the energetic 6-foot-6 forward from Coquitlam’s Centennial Secondary, is a freshman full of promise.

While Didenko will have to play the same waiting game as Simon Fraser’s 14 other roster players, he helped himself in way he reported to the team’s opening training sessions.

“Didenko is a very good athlete,” said Hanson. “He’s getting better every day and he’s just working his butt off playing against very good players. But he was also our top forward and one of our top guys overall in our six-lap (2.4 km) test run. His ability to run was outstanding, and it was also a little unexpected.”

Dylan McFee, a touted and versatile 6-foot-5 Ontario native via the DME Sports Academy in Dayton Beach (Fla.), was redshirted last season, and thus will have two years of practice under his belt if the 2020-21 season is cancelled.

Two rising sophomores — 6-foot-10 Dominic Postle and 6-foot-6 Kemo Sonko — round out the forwards.

Josiah Mastandrea (left) comes to Simon Fraser this season after an extended stay at New Westminster’s Douglas College. (Photo property of Simon Fraser athletics 2020. All Rights Reserved)

The backcourt group has remained static in its composition since the spring, with one exception.

A group led by point guard David Penney and shooter Drew Bryson, and also including a trio of freshmen in redshirt Colten Northrop and incoming rookies Jovan Rai and Hunter Cruz-Dumont, added a nice veteran presence recently when Hanson signed a player from his former high school coaching digs.

Josiah Mastandrea, an elite three-point shooter who prepped at PoCo’s Terry Fox Secondary before playing three CCAA seasons in the PacWest with New Westminster’s Douglas College Royals, actually had a chance to be coached by Hanson back in the summer of 2015.

“The year I got hired at SFU was after my final year at Fox, Hanson remembered. “So before I came, I did the spring league team at Fox, and Josiah was a Grade 10 who would be going into his Grade 11 year in the fall.

“From the player he was then, to the one he has become now… he’s a self-made guy, and what he has done since high school to become an elite-level shooter is incredible,” Hanson said of Mastandrea, who if 2020-21 is cancelled, will have both this season and next to exhaust his collegiate eligibility on the hill.

“Josiah is someone who has already played three years of college basketball, and so he comes in with a lot of experience and it has served him really well,” added Hanson on Thursday. “He’s got an elite skill set when it comes to shooting the ball. He has the deepest range on our team without a doubt. He is going to help us get better defending the perimetre, and we’re going to get him better with some things other than shooting.”

All for one, and one for all. The 2020-21 SFU men’s basketball team has greeted each day with an attitude of gratitude. (Photo property of Simon Fraser athletics 2020. All Rights Reserved)

Hanson hoped the concept of game-like intrasquad scrimmages could become a monthly event for the team.

“As much as coaches might say they love practice, which we do, you have to do things as a coach to shake it up a little,” he said. “So actually having a result at the end of two halves will be something we don’t normally do, but I think it’s something we should try and do every month.

“We know that regardless of season or no season, it’s going to be more practice than what we’ve been used to, and these guys are having fun getting to know each other.”

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