LANGLEY — His has been a coaching career filled with successes.
Yet remind Matt Kuzminski about reaching three CCAA Final Fours and winning a national championship over the first six years of his head coaching career with Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University Mariners, one which began just two seasons after he played his final collegiate game, and the 32-year-old boils it all down to greeting each day with a beginner’s mind.
“I think it’s comforting that I don’t know everything, but that I am willing to learn,” Kuzminski offered just moments before putting his PacWest champion Mariners through their practice paces Wednesday morning at the Langley Events Centre in advance of Thursday’s 3 p.m. opening-round battle against Calgary’s SAIT Trojans, here at the 2019 Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association national men’s basketball championships.
“For me, every day is an opportunity to go out and learn and I am surrounded by great people,” he adds.
The humility is refreshing, the approach and its execution stunningly consistent. Combined, they have made the Mariners annual contenders for the CCAA national crown.
This season, not only was there an impressive 16-2 record and a first-place regular-season finish, there was, with a berth to the national tournament on the line, a dramatic overtime win over New Westminster’s Douglas College Royals in the PacWest final .
In that game, trailing 72-70 with 1.2 seconds remaining in regulation time, Kuzminski called for a well-rehearsed play called Phoenix Lob.
Guard Cameron Gay in-bounded the ball to forward Tyus Barfoot for the game-tying basket, and the Mariners went on to win 89-82 in overtime.
“We have been practising it for years, we just never got a chance to run it,” Kuzminski says. “To go down by two with 1.2 seconds left, you can feel quite unravelled at times. But when Cameron walks out there to inbound the ball, you can see on the video where he actually gives the double thumbs-up to his mom in the stands before he passes it.”
Over the 11 days which have passed since the win, VIU’s grace under pressure at the season’s most critical moment has done nothing but energize their preparation for nationals.
“I think we are one of the most prepared teams,” continued Kuzminski, “and to have that re-affirmed at the last second that everything we are doing is important and will come into play at some time was big. All the details, no matter how small, matter.”
HIS BASKETBALL ROOTS REVEALED
Coaching trees, like family trees, reveal so much about every head coach’s DNA.
In the case of Matt Kuzminski, who won a CCAA national title in his first season (2012-13) at the helm of VIU, his roots run deep in both Vancouver Island and Burnaby Mountain soil.
Coached in high school at Nanaimo’s Dover Bay Dolphins by a master defensive guru in Mark Simpson, Kuzminski went on to spend two years with the Victoria Vikes (2004-05, 05-06) under Craig Beaucamp, then three more seasons (2007-08 through ’09-10) with the Simon Fraser Clan under Scott Clark.
“To come in with very little coaching experience, I was super lucky to have the experiences I did,” says Kuzminski, who played in a CIS national final with the Vikes in 2005-06 then gleaned a huge part of his offensive ideals under the Clan’s Clark. “I relied on what those guys taught me and a lot of what I still do is very similar to what we did with coach Clark at Simon Fraser. Simpson and Clark are so similar, right down to their mannerisms and the fact that they coached together at VIU.”
And it’s through that coaching tree which Kuzminski has adopted a version of the famed Princeton Offence with all of its motion-based, deception-riddled looks.
“Simpson never ran it, but we ran it with Beaucamp and with Clark,” says Kuzminski. “I have learned it from them and from some outside sources, and I have taken what fits our team the best.”
And while it can’t all be put down to statistics, Kuzminski does break into a pretty wide smile when it’s pointed out to him that three of the top four, and four of the top nine assists-per-game averages this season belong to VIU Mariners.
You may think it’s cliche to say that finding the perfect point guard is like finding the perfect quarterback, yet in the case of the Mariners it’s the plain truth.
Over a football career at tiny Lakeside High, just outside of Spokane, as a three-year starter for the senior varsity. Cameron Gay threw for over 7,000 yards and over 100 touchdowns.
“He was recruited to play (college) football and he was highly-touted,” says Kuzminski of the 6-foot-3 guard who led the PacWest this season at 5.9 assists per game. “If you watch him, you’ll see it.”
In the end, Gay just loved basketball more, and after playing two junior college seasons in the NWAC with Tacoma, he loved what he saw during his recruiting trip to Nanaimo and decided to come north this season.
Gay, fellow NWAC rival Landon Radliff (5.0 apg), Aussie native Harry Fayle (4.7 apg) and hometown Nanaimo District grad Tyus Barfoot (3.4 apg) finished first, third, fourth and ninth respectively in PacWest assist average this season.
Combine that with the fact that Radliff led the PacWest in scoring (26.2 ppg) and that Fayle (19.6 ppg), Gay (14.6) and Barfoot (14.2 ppg) also all averaged double figures in scoring, along with teammate Jerod Dorby (14.6 ppg), and it’s hard to figure just who you need to stop to slow the Mariners down.
“It just shows how together we are, how trusting of each other we are,” said Gay. “We run an offence where it’s a lot of pick-and-pop, and drive-and-dish, and we find each other. There’s rarely a possession where it gets stuck. That’s what makes it so great to be a part of. We trust each other that even when we have a good shot, we can still find a great shot.”
And more than ever, there is a sense of full-circle for Matt Kuzminski this week at the CCAA’s.
Not only will his longtime coaching assistants Avneet Brar and Scott Marr continue to be at his side like they have since 2013, so too will his former high school coach.
“Mark Simpson runs our whole defence,” Kuzminski says. “He will coach 30-to-40 minutes of each practice with tons of input. The first few years (at VIU) he was my mentor. Last year, he retired so I asked him to come out and it’s been a really good fit.”
At age 32, it’s safe to say that Matt Kuzminski has earned the right to call himself a coaching veteran.
Yet he keeps growing every day because he’s never scared to re-examine the game he loves with a beginner’s mind.
CCAA MEN’S BASKETBALL
(all games at Langley Events Centre South Court)
TOP HALF DRAW
1 p.m. — Vanier Cheetahs vs. Humber Hawks
3 p.m. — SAIT Trojans vs. Vancouver Island Mariners
BOTTOM HALF DRAW
5 p.m. — Sheridan Bruins vs. Nomades de Montmorency
7:30 p.m. — Holland Hurricanes vs. Langara Falcons
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