VANCOUVER — They are not exactly a team shrouded in mystery, yet on the night of the final sleep before opening the 2021-22 Canada West men’s basketball season, it’s impossible to have a genuine handle on just what kind of team the UBC Thunderbirds are going to be.
And you can take that right down to the myriad player combinations that head coach Kevin Hanson and his staff have pondered as they moved through a pre-season without its now long-graduated star backcourt duo of Jadon Cohee and Manroop Clair.
Yet what you can expect to see over a conference-opening weekend at venerable War Memorial Gymnasium in which the defending Canada West champion ‘Birds will face the Trinity Western Spartans on Thursday (8 p.m.) followed by the Victoria Vikes on Saturday (7 p.m.), is a team which has embraced not only its key returning core of players in guards Grant Audu, Brian Wallack and Jack Cruz-Dumont, but embraced the virtues of the transfer portal which has seemingly re-cast these ‘Birds as a versatile, physical and uniquely re-loaded bunch behind the the likes of 6-foot-10 Fraser Valley Cascades big man Sukhman Sandhu, ex-Walnut Grove Gators B.C. high school MVP guard James Woods, 6-foot-8, 245-pound UPEI forward Jamesley Jerome, 2019-20 redshirt guard Triston Matthews from UBC Okanagan, and highly-touted Boston University guard Kyle Foreman, the latter currently injured and unavailable this weekend.
In late-breaking news Wednesday, the ‘Birds have also added former Kitsilano point guard Luka Lizdek, who had played for the PacWest’s Langara Falcons, although Lizdek is likely not suiting up this weekend.
“We only have five guys that played in games for UBC in our last season so it’s going to take a while to gel,” reminds Hanson, entering his 22nd season at the helm. “So we have talked about potentially starting different guys on not only different nights, but also different quarters and different halves.
“For example, third quarters the past few years have been a bit stale for us, so we are looking to give different guys different opportunities,” he added. “We know that is totally challenging for the players, but we are still trying to get the right fit.”
Yet this isn’t a rebuild, but more of a replenishing on the fly via transfers, keeping with what has seemingly become the norm both in the Canada West, U SPORTS and the rest of the college basketball world.
The anchor out in Point Grey, however, is the 6-foot-5 Audu, a seasoned fourth-year guard from Toronto with a skill set as versatile and a motor as constant as any player in the conference.
“He brings a high energy at both ends of the floor and he knows he has to produce for us,” said Hanson. “He’s played exceptionally well through the preseason.”
Audu, 6-foot-7 third-year forward Brian Wallack (Surrey-Semiahmoo) and Foreman, a 6-foot-2 native of Bellevue (Wash.) who formerly played for the NCAA Div. 1 Terriers, have been selected as the team’s tri-captains.
Although the team’s starting five for Thursday remains unconfirmed, Hanson did start the same group for at least two of the team’s preseason games: Former Vancouver College standout and second-year point guard Jack Cruz-Dumont, along with Audu, Wallack, Sandhu and Woods.
Sandhu is a unique player, a 6-foot-10 forward, who in his days since coming into the game at Surrey’s Tamanawis Secondary, has added muscle to bulk up to 245 pounds, and along the way hone an outside shooting game that has given him a real European flair.
“I absolutely love the kid because he’s a tough match-up,” said Hanson of Sandhu, who in the Birds exhibition win over MacEwan finished with 17 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes, going two-of-four from distance in the process. “He that versatile five-man who brings a presence. What people aren’t taking into consideration is that he is altering seven, eight, nine shots a game with his length. He’s a grown man but I think his talent level is untapped. If he can get more touches down low and make his presence be felt there, too, he will be a very tough guy to guard.”
The other newcomer to the starting line-up in the preseason was Woods, the guard who as a Grade 11 in 2017 helped lead Walnut Grove to the B.C. AAA title and was selected tournament MVP.
“I have always preached having the winning mindset and that’s what I love about him,” said Hanson, who has brought Woods into the program as a third-year player from Central Wyoming College. “He’s a player who has always performed big in big moments. He’s a flat-out winner.”
There are so many developmental plotlines in store as UBC takes to the court in front of its hometown faithful for the first time since beating Winnipeg to close out the last conference season back on Feb. 8, 2020.
As he has re-tooled his roster following the departure of not only Cohee and Clair, but guards Taylor Brown and Zack Moore and forward Jonah Morrison, it’s no mistake that Hanson paid particular attention to creating a roster whose depth can bring a plus level of not only skill and athleticism, but size and physicality as well.
It, will, in fact get put to the test on opening week.
“I think we have a lot of different pieces, so that we can play a lot of different looks from small-ball to tall-ball, to putting out a lot of bruisers,” he said.
The contrast will be on display, in fact, between UBC’s Thursday and Saturday opposition.
“We go from playing a perimetre-oriented team,” he begins of Trinity Western which boasts not only former UBC lead guard Mason Bourcier, but the twin Texas tandem of Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath and Tre Fillmore, “to playing UVic, which has a very big post presence.”
On paper, UBC looks to have all the pieces.
Now comes the Canada West season and challenge of finding the best way to make it all fit as one.
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