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UNBC men's basketball team optimistic about new season

It's a new season, new division and almost a brand new lineup for the UNBC Timberwolves.

It's a new season, new division and almost a brand new lineup for the UNBC Timberwolves.

The men's basketball squad hits the hardwood tonight and Saturday in Kamloops, where it will tip off against the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack to open its 2014-15 season in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Canada West Conference.

The Timberwolves are competing in the newly-aligned Explorers Division of Canada West. Besides UNBC and TRU, the division includes UBC Okanagan (Kelowna), Mount Royal University (Calgary), the University of the Fraser Valley (Abbotsford) and MacEwan University (Edmonton).

Jeff Chu, one of three fifth-year players on the team, can't wait to hit the floor and get the new season underway. UNBC finished the 2013-14 season with a record of 5-17, eighth place in the old Pacific Division.

"I'm super-excited," said the six-foot guard. "It will be interesting with six teams who we play fewer times, but twice as much. The games will be a lot closer and more competitive."

Timberwolves head coach Todd Jordan recruited from Europe and Australia, as well as Toronto and Vancouver in the off-season, to reshape and replenish UNBC's roster. He added five new recruits with size and skill to his squad.

Among the new class is six-foot-two shooting guard Rhys Elliot, who grew up in Adelaide, Australia, but spent the last two seasons at Iowa Central, a two-year junior college in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Vaggelis Loukas is a six-foot-six freshman forward from Greece who found his way to Prince George thanks to some connections with UNBC's women's head coach Sergey Shchepotkin.

Closer to Prince George, Jordan went to North Vancouver to recruit two players from Capilano University. Sam Zhang is a six-foot-four shooting guard transferring into his fourth year and Colin Plumb is a six-foot-five utility guard.

Jordan said those five will definitely add to the T-wolves' returning lineup with guys such as Chu, Billy Cheng (five-foot-eight guard), Franck Olivier Kouagnia (six-foot-seven forward), Devin McMurtry (six-foot-four forward) and Marcus MacKay (six-foot-two guard). Forward Gagan Sahota (six-foot-five) and guard Nolan Hanson (six-foot-one) round out the lineup.

"They're all great team guys," said Chu, adding Kouagnia could become one of the best players in the conference. "We've got the team to do it [succeed] this year and everyone is on the same page and willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team."

The T-wolves enter the regular season after travelling to Winnipeg Oct. 24-25 where they edged the University of Winnipeg 89-88 but lost 91-79 to the University of Manitoba.

"I'm pretty excited about the progress they've made," said Jordan, who is counting on Chu, Cheng and Kouagnia to bring the veteran leadership to the team. "We're a much deeper team and showed positive signs in the pre-season. There are some defensive things they could've done better [in Winnipeg] but we're pretty excited about where we're at as a team. We've definitely moved up a level."

UNBC spent its first two seasons in the Canada West competing against more established basketball programs such as UBC, the University of Alberta, University of Victoria and University of Saskatchewan.

Those schools are now in the Pioneer Division.

Chu believes playing against those teams for the last two years will help ease the transition to the new Explorers Division.

"In general, playing against tough competition raises your game," he said. "It'll make for an easier transition but every game in the CIS is always a battle and anything can happen."

UNBC travels to Abbotsford Nov. 14-15 for a pair of games against UFV and returns for its home-opener at the Northern Sport Centre Nov. 21 against Mount Royal.

"It will be nice to open on the road so we can get the jitters out of the way and break the ice," said Chu. "Then we'll come back home and play fresh."

Jordan has another opinion.

TRU and UFV are ranked in the top-two according to a pre-season poll by the Explorers Division coaches.

"We have two tough weekends on the road so it's not ideal to get tested like that," said Jordan. "But if we come out of it with something positive then we know we'll be in reasonably good shape and what we need to work on."

Teams will play each other four times over the course of the regular season with the top three teams crossing over to compete against the top-seven from the 11-team Pioneers Division in the playoffs.

"The rivalry will be built by the second game of the back-to-back games," said Jordan. "It'll create a situation where the teams will know each other as well as scouting and analyzing film and by the time we get to the fourth games, teams will be used to one another."