Q the return. TWU's dynamic scoring guard Ja'Qualyn Gilbreath leads the Spartans' small ball attack as the Langley school plays the first U Sports men's basketball game since March of 2020 when it hosts the Calgary Dinos on Thursday at the Langley Events Centre. (Photo by Scott Stewart property of TWU athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Men's Basketball

Trinity Western opens its 2021-21 men’s U SPORTS season Thursday vs. Calgary! Debut for Spartans’ dynamic backcourt of Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath and Mason Bourcier!

LANGLEY — The longest dry spell in the history of U SPORTS basketball is set to end on Thursday.

“I think we’re (one of) the first U SPORTS team in the country to play,” says Trinity Western Spartans’ men’s basketball coach Trevor Pridie, looking ahead to Thursday’s limited capacity pre-season exhibition opener against the powerhouse Calgary Dinos at the Langley Events Centre (7:30 p.m. tip-off).

Indeed, who could have ever predicted that after Carleton beat Dalhousie in the 2020 national final that it would be 581 days to the next men’s game?

The unfortunate part for the fans, however, is that the game will be played under a pre-season mandate of just 96 fans, or, in case you thought that was a typo, four shy of one hundred fans. As well, the game is not available via internet streaming.

Upon the start of the Canada West basketball season, Trinity Western’s games at the Langley Events Centre will return to a more normal attendance maximum.

Lethbridge and Dalhousie are also in action Thursday facing CCAA schools, the same as Victoria who will meet the Vancouver Island University Mariners, the PacWest powers who last weekend came away with a pair of wins over the Spartans. Only two other  games involving Canada West foes have been played this season, as Brandon lost to both Regina and Mt. Royal.

Yet despite the limited seating in effect, the contest marks an essential first step out of the darkness for a Trinity Western men’s basketball program attempting to regain both conference and national relevancy.

And when you ask Pridie about the 2021-22 Spartans, two facts are immediately apparent.

The first? With two seniors, three fourth-year players and four third-years, they have metamorphosed into a veteran core, especially at the top end of their rotation. Given the COVID bonus year, the sage aspects of the group are only enhanced, a fact that creeps down into so many of the roster’s underclassmen as well.

The second?

That’s the part that keeps coaches like Pridie up at night.

There is experience, yes, but there have been no live game reps together to build anything that could be called bankable chemistry.

“It is interesting because we have a fairly experienced group, but they have never played together for me in my kind of system,” adds Pridie. “We’re all trying to figure out how to do things.”

So what will these Spartans look like when head coach Dan Vanhooren and the Dinos come through the centre court doors at the LEC on Thursday?

“We have so many new pieces, that from the time we played Victoria (a 92-81 season-ending loss 02.08.20 as part of an 0-22 season) to today, we’ll probably have five new starting players on Thursday.”

It’s in keeping with the hyper-paced, RUN-TMC schematic Pridie unveiled in 2019-20, only it’s overall skill-level will be greatly improved.

Not only is fifth-year senior Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath back from a nightmarish 2019-20 season in which he was ruled ineligible as a transfer casualty at a time when he was leading nation in scoring, he is joined by the well-travelled Mason Bourcier, who without a trace of hyperbole, was easily one of the greatest B.C. high school guards of his generation through his career with the Kelowna Owls.

Add to the mix fourth-year newcomer Tre Fillmore, a 6-foot-2 guard, and childhood friend of Gilbreath’s from their time together in Amarillo, TX; second-year guard/wing Vlad Mihaila of Surrey’s Semiamoo Totems, and Andrew Goertzen, the versatile 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward out of Langley’s Walnut Grove Secondary, and you’ve got a talented quintet that does not want to see its combined potential wasted.

And while sure things are hard to find in the Canada West, there is little doubt that Gilbreath, who was averaging 27 ppg at the time he was ruled ineligible owing to U SPORTS transfer rules, will be an even better player as he returns for his final season.

“He was here the entire COVID year… he stayed up here, he worked his tail off, worked on his skills, and now he’s stronger and even more committed,” said Pridie.

“Obviously, what happened to him two years ago was devastating to both him and the program, and then the COVID year came,” Pridie continued. “He’s spent two years up here and there hasn’t been much basketball for the poor guy to play.”

Which begs the most intriguing question of the team’s season: Once he finds his chemistry with Bourcier, what will their backcourt partnership look like?

New Trinity Western guard Mason Bourcier, pictured during his high school days at Kelowna, has arrived in Sparta via stops at UBC and later Carleton. (Photo property of Wilson Wong 2021, All Rights Reserved)

Says the coach of Bourcier:

“He brings a certain level of competitiveness and winning culture when he steps inside the gym,” Pridie says. “It’s a little bit of a different vibe, someone who is that serious about winning, and someone who is versatile and allows us to be able to play some small ball because he can play and defend so many positions.”

Bourcier is a former UBC starter who elected to transfer to Carleton, then return back to his B.C. roots at Trinity.

And although he is a blue-chip playmaking point guard with dynamic handles and a pin-point passing ability, Pridie isn’t 100 per cent sure how the back-court will look until he gets a better look at it in the preseason.

“I don’t know,” Pridie begins. “We have this two-guard offence we’ve been fooling around with, but right now I wouldn’t say he is (the defined) point guard. But I know he will handle it a lot, and I know he will create a lot.”

Fillmore is a fleet-footed 6-foot-2 guard who averaged about 9.5 ppg over his final two seasons with Wayland Baptist, an NAIA school which was a national-title contender over his time there.

“He is a heady player, really fast and athletic and we played the fastest tempo in the country a couple of years ago, so he is a real system fit for us,” Pridie says. “He can shoot it, too, so he will offer some spacing out there for us.”

Trinity Western Spartans head coach Trevor Pridie anticipates an ever more seasoned and skilled Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath as the team opens the 2021-22 U SPORTS men’s basketball season Thursday at the LEC against the Calgary Dinos. (Photo by Scott Stewart property of Trinity Western athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Mihaila and Goertzen are the B.C. products whose play is encouraging some excitement at the top end of the rotation, but there are others whose play will be critical to ensuring some depth and flexibility, including guard Riley Braich (Yale), wing Isaiah Reimer (MEI) and post Connor Platz (Walnut Grove).

On the injury front, UFV transfer Daniel Adediran has been lost for the season. Pridie hopes Daniel Stead, the third of three former Gators’ big-men on the roster, will soon be able to join the team.

“Thursday is going to tell a lot,” Pridie explained. “These early games are so helpful because it’s important to see where you are, where your weaknesses are, and where you need to get ready. And we’re starting with an easy one,” he joked of scheduling the powerhouse Dinos.

“It’s nice to play the great teams early because they will definitely expose you… tell you what you need to do.”

Trinity Western opens its Canada West regular-season campaign, this season restricted to B.C.-only schools, when it plays a men’s/women’s double-header in Vancouver at War Gym against the UBC Thunderbirds on Oct. 28.

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