Timberwolves satisfied with 4-4 start
The graduating class at UNBC that turned over four starters from last year's men's basketball team created plenty of uncertainty around the Timberwolves' camp.
Head coach Todd Jordan would be the first to admit he's been pleasantly surprised at how well those holes in the starting lineup have been filled on a T-wolves team that's taking a 4-4 record into Christmas break.
Who would have figured that after those first eight games that Tyrell Laing, a product of the Prince George Polars high school program, would be the leading scorer in U Sports Canada West and that his backcourt sidekick Vova Pluzhnikov would be second in the conference in assists and eighth in scoring? Laing has scored 22.5 points per game and Pluzhnikov is not far behind, averaging 19 points. Together they form a dynamic duo that's allowing the T-wolves to maintain a playoff position.
"I'm not surprised that those guys have stepped up and are scoring more and taking on bigger leadership roles, what has surprised me is how fast that's happened," said Jordan. "Vova has kind of been in that position for a couple of years now, but Tyrell is leading the conference in scoring right now and for a Prince George kid to be doing that is a pretty cool story.
"Our offence is built to put those guys in primary decision-making and scoring positions as much as we can. But at the end of the day it's those guys who are stepping up and playing at a high level and we're going to need that to continue. Their confidence is really high right now."
Playing without the services of last year's regulars - Jovan Leamy, James Agyeman, Austin Chandler and Vaggelis Loukas - a T-wolves team that went 0-7 in the preseason started out with a seven-point win over UVic in the home-opener at the Northern Sport Centre. The Vikes turned the tables in the rematch and won by 23. The following weekend in Langley and UNBC won both over Trinity Western to jump to 3-1. Beaten handily at home by the UBC T-birds, the T-wolves went down to Kamloops and split with Thompson Rivers, in their final weekend of action in 2019.
"Going into the season obviously there was a ton of turnover from last year's team and a growth process with a lot of guys having to step into new roles and we were just hoping the guys would continue to grow and get better and I think that has happened," said Jordan.
"For us to be 4-4 and having played a really strong team (UBC) within those eight games, I think we're in an OK spot. We've put ourselves into striking position for playoffs going into the second half. I think will all the turnover and stuff that; something we can be proud of, but we've got to continue to grow."
Returning veterans Anthony Hokanson and Saje Gosal have figured out how to playoff the strengths of Pluzhnikov and Laing and use them to their advantage. Stopping teams from scoring is where the T-wolves need to improve most and they'll have to keep working on reducing the points they allow (84.9 per game, 12th in Canada West)
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the play of six-foot-six rookie forward Fareed Shittu, who despite just two years of basketball experience as a high schooler in Edmonton, he's in a position to beat T-wolves team records for rookie scoring and rebounding. Shittu is an extraordinary leaper and he pulled in 68 rebounds in those eight games to rank seventh in Canada West. He can hit the basket. In field goal percentage, Shittu (60 per cent) and second-year Spencer Ledoux (63.6 per cent) are both in the top-10.
UNBC drew the bye last weekend and won't play a league game until Jan. 3 in Calgary. After that, the T-wolves face two teams with near .500 records (Fraser Valley and Regina) and three teams that rank near the bottom of the league (UBC-Okanagan, Brandon and MacEwan).
"Calgary is one of the top teams in the country and they're going to present a real challenge to us coming out of the break," said Jordan. "After we're done playing them you're looking at almost every weekend going in with a good opportunity to notch some wins on the board."
Having that extra week off came at a good time for the T-wolves, who had the added stress of dealing with the faculty strike, which finally ended on Friday. The picket lines came down after the labour dispute shut down classrooms for more than three weeks.
The T-wolves men won't be idle over the Christmas break. They're heading to California Dec. 15 for a five-day, three-game exhibition series at Vanguard University against NAIA teams. Jordan plans to do some experimenting with his team during the break which he hopes will keep his players improving.
"Our goal is to go into the second half a better team than what we are now," he said. "It's probably going to take eight or nine wins to get in (to playoffs) and we have 12 games left so we have to find a way to get at least five or six wins to give us a good shot at winning a playoff game."