If the UNBC Timberwolves want to make the playoffs again this year, then they might as well face one of the top teams right away.
The men's basketball squad tips off its 2015-16 season Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (7 p.m.) at home against the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack, one the teams pegged to beat in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Canada West Conference.
"TRU is a bit of a rival and we play them very tight going back to our old college days," said Timberwolves head coach Todd Jordan. "In the preseason they beat Simon Fraser (University) last week and played in the States. They'll come in and play at a high level. I do know we need to be ready to go and if we don't play well, they'll stick it to us."
Last season, the Timberwolves posted a 12-8 regular season record to finish second in the Canada West Explorer Division. It was the first time the team had reached the playoffs since it joined the CIS three years ago. UNBC was knocked out of the playoffs in two-straight games by the UBC Thunderbirds in a best-of-three quarter-final series.
This season, UNBC is without three key players who played big minutes - forwards Jeff Chu, Devin McMurtry and Fanco Kouagnia - all seniors who graduated last spring.
McMurtry was dominant on the glass, finishing second overall in rebounds (10.5 per game) in Canada West, while Kouagnia provided a big, inside presence and was named a Canada West second-team all-star.
In their place, Jordan still has a core of veterans to rely on, including six-foot-five forward Colin Plumb (fifth year), six-foot-two guard Marcus MacKay (third year), five-foot-eight guard Elliot Rowe (fourth year), five-foot-eight guard Billy Cheng (fifth year), six-foot-two guard Rhys Elliott (fourth year), six-foot-five forward Gagan Sahota (third year) and six-foot-six forward Vaggelis Loukas (second year).
Elliott and Cheng are expected to run and guide the offence.
UNBC will also be without Nolan Hansen who blew out his knee during practice in September.
Jordan's recruiting class is comprised of five new players.
Freshmen include six-foot-five guard Anthony Hokanson from Kitsilano secondary in Vancouver and six-foot-five forward Haydn Molcak from D.P. Todd secondary in Prince George.
"Haydn is big, strong and physical who spent time in the Pacific Sport Academy who had a lot of potential," said Jordan.
Jordan also went to the heart of the Canadian Rockies to Golden where he found a pair of decent-sized guards - Saje Gosal (six-foot-four) and Neal Randhawa (six-foot-three).
But perhaps Jordan's biggest catch in the off-season is six-foot-seven big man Jordan Chandler from Wenatchee, Wash.
The power forward spent the first two years of his collegiate career playing for his hometown Wenatchee Valley College, a junior college.
"He's a big-bodied kid and a pretty good athlete," said Jordan. "It'll take him about a year to see improvement, but he'll definitely be in the rotation for sure with Vaggelis and Colin.
"Billy and Rhys have to be going for us (to be successful) and I definitely think they're ready for the challenge."
To prepare for this weekend, the Timberwolves competed in three preseason tournaments at UBC, University of Alberta and Red Deer College.
At the UBC tournament in Vancouver, the Timberwolves beat Guelph, but lost to the top-ranked University of Ottawa and Memorial University from St. John's, Nfld.
"It was a mixed bag of results," said Jordan. "We've had five or six guys out with various injuries that kept them out of the preseason. We've been juggling different lineups with the guys hurt but now we're finally healthy."
Among those who spent time on the disabled list were Sahota with concussion symptoms and MacKay with an ankle injury.
The Timberwolves rivals in the Explorer Division feature not only the WolfPack, but UBC Okanagan, University of the Fraser Valley Cascades (Abbotsford), Mount Royal Cougars (Calgary) and MacEwan University Griffins(Edmonton). They'll play each other four times over the course of the regular season.