Six games, six wins to start the season.
The UBC Thunderbirds are living up to the hype that seems to follow them wherever their travels take them on the Canadian men’s university basketball trail.
Friday night at the Northern Sport Centre, a Prince George audience will get to see what makes the T-birds tick as the perennial leaders of the U SPORTS Canada West Conference.
Including their 6-0 start this year, the T-birds have posted a 114-29 record over the last seven seasons. They haven’t finished below .500 since 2014, when they ended up 15-16.
Ranked No. 4 in Canada, the T-birds are looking like a solid bet to be in position to defend their 2020 Canada West championship next March in Edmonton.
“Every year they’re near the top of the ladder in the country so it’s a great challenge for us having them come in,” said T-wolves head coach Todd Jordan, whose team is off to a 2-2 start. “We’ve spent the week preparing for them and we’re pretty excited to face that challenge coming into Friday.”
The T-birds have the ability to strike wherever they line up to shoot. Averaging 89 points per game, their field goal average is 49 per cent (175-for-357) and they’re killers from three-point range, averaging 38.1 per cent (48-for-126).
“They’re relentless at attacking the basket,” said Jordan. “They have a number of guards that can go at you off the dribble. Grant Audu is having a really good season (averaging a team-high 18.4 points), he’s near the top of the conference in scoring, and James Woods is a pretty good player, a provincial champion in high school (at Walnut Grove Secondary in Langley).
“They have some size up front, (six-foot-10) Sukhman Sandhu has had a really good year and can shoot the three and score on you on the inside. They have a lot of weapons coming in and you’re dealing with a lot of firepower. They get out of transition with a lot of easy buckets, and they’ve been able to get into the lane and play inside out and get good opportunities, which converts into a really high field-goal percentage. We’ll have to be disruptive of some of those things defensively to be able to manage some of that.”
UNBC will counter with Tyrell Laing, the defending Canada West scoring champion. He’s averaging 21.5 points in four games, not far off the pace of league-leader Ja’Quaulyn Gilbreath of Trinity Western (22.3).
“Ty is putting up scoring numbers which we obviously thought he would again,” said Jordan. “I think if you talk to Ty, I don’t think he’s yet played consistently at the level he’d like to. He’s progressed as the season’s gone on, though, and every game he’s gotten better and he’s starting to find his rhythm now and we’re hoping he can have a big weekend.”
Laing and his UNBC teammate Vova Pluzhnikov both eclipsed 900 career points in their weekend series against TRU, Nov. 5-6, and both are closing in on Rhys Elliott’s team-record 934 career points. Laing needs just 10 more points to break that record. There’s also a chance the fifth-year senior guard from Kharkiv, Ukraine will better James Agyeman’s career assist team mark tonight. Pluzhnikov is just three helpers shy of Agyeman’s 313.
“I think Vova’s scoring role probably has been reduced a little bit just because we’re a bit deeper and more talented across the board than we’ve been in a couple years, so he doesn’t have to carry as much load and he’s able to be a bit more of a distributor,” said Jordan. “He hasn’t quite shot the ball at the level yet, consistently, that we’d like to see him get to, and I do think he’s due for a bigger game coming soon here.”
The T-wolves won’t have one of their key assets in the lineup Friday with Canada West All-Rookie team forward Fareed Shittu sitting out the last of a three-game suspension for throwing a punch in a game against Fraser Valley.
“We’ll have him Saturday and he does make a big difference,” said Jordan. “His ability to affect things athletically on the glass and changing shots makes a big difference for us when he’s available and we’re looking forward to having him back.
“Other guys just have to step and fill those minutes and that role. We don’t talk about having to replace the things Fareed brings, it’s just other guys have to step in and play well and we have to be the team we are when he’s not on the floor.”
They will have six-foot-10 forward Rohtash Mattu back from an ankle injury to play his first home game in a T-wolves’ uniform, after three seasons with UVic.
The opening tip-off is at 8 p.m. Friday.