Men’s basketball campaign on the horizon

Could this be the year the ‘Wolves grab a national title?

By Ben Lundy

The LakeheadThunderwolves Men’s Basketball team will open up the regular season November 9 at Ryerson University. The team heads into the season ranked sixth overall in the country after three straight years in the CIS Final 8, and with expectations for the program probably as high as they have ever been.

The Thunderwolves wrapped up the preseason with a respectable 8-3 record. They spent the last half of theexhibition schedule in a particularly tough west coast road trip, playing CIS powerhouses from Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The team was undermanned for the entire trip with Ben Johnson, Joseph Jones, Brendan King, Ryan Thomson, and Yoosrie Salhia all missing time due to either academic responsibilities or injury. In spite of this disadvantage, the Thunderwolves were very competitive in every game and only lost to the University of Saskatchewan, Fraser Valley, and the University of British Columbia, teams all ranked in the top five in the country.

Coach Morrison believes it was beneficial for the team to have played so well against some of the best competition in the country, without a full complement of players. “Last year we had some injuries near the end of the year and kind of faded away. . . . It gives us the confidence to know that even without a full team, we can play with anyone in the CIS.”

The Thunderwolves are now prepared for the regular season, with a diverse group of talented players. There are a lot of familiar faces, some new ones, and one unfortunately missing from this year’s roster.

The majority of the team’s players are back again this year: six fifth-year seniors, Greg Carter, Ben Johnson, Joseph Jones, Brendan King, YoosrieSalhia and Matthew Schmidt, who will no doubt lead the squad. There are a handful of other returning players, as well as some previously red-shirted freshmen who will play significant roles in helping the team win going forward.

However, there is a gaping hole in this year’s line up left by the departure of 2011/2012 OUA West Player of the Year,Venzal Russell, who was a huge part of the Thunderwolves last season, leading the team in scoring and being selected to the All-Canada second team. Fans can probably remember the game-winning shot Russell hit in the semifinals of the OUA Championship in 2011. The Thunderwolves went on to win the only OUA Basketball Championship in the school’s history the very next game.

When asked about Russell’s absence from the team this year, Morrison responded, “It was mutually decided that it would be beneficial for both parties to go their separate ways.”

That is, of course, the politically correct response, but it is safe to assume that there were some behavioural issues occurring behind the scenes. Either way, Russell is no longer a member of the team and has been replaced by what the coach called a “Venzal by committee.”

The committee consists of two new recruits, Joe Hart and Dwayne Harvey. Hart, a 6’4” guard originally from England, played three seasons at Blair Academy in New Jersey (renowned for its basketball program), and is also a member of the under 20 national team in Great Britain. Needless to say, he brings a lot of experience to the team. Hart is described as a pure shooter, and has shown his ability to knock down the long ball frequently in the preseason. He is expected to start in the regular season along with Carter, Johnson, Thomson, and Salhia.

Harvey is a 5’10” guard from Hamilton, Ontario, and played two seasons for the NCAA Division 1 Alabama State University, as well as last season with Wilbur Wright College in Chicago. Harvey is expected to help replace some of playmaking ability lost in Russell’s departure. Coach Morrison was excited about what Harvey would bring to the table with his ability to come off ball screens and then make plays for himself and others.

This is a pivotal year for the programwith at least six of the team’s top players not returning for next season. The culture of the basketball in this city has changed dramatically since Morrison’s tenure with the team. The Thunderwolves have gone from a basement dweller a few years ago to perennial contenders for the national championship. The team has visited the CIS Final 8 three straight years and won an OUA championship. Unfortunately, the team has not yet been able to parlay their successes into anything tangible at the national level, as the squad has lost the first game of the CIS Final 8 in each of the past three tournaments, eliminating them from Championship contention.

This is a literal last hurrah for many players who have become fixtures on the team, which puts an additional sense of urgency in the minds of the players.

So what are the expectations for the Thunderwolves this year? What would be a successful season? Well, to be blatant, the National Championship has to be in the back of everyone’s mind because it is a definite possibility. Coach Morrison himself conceded that the National Championship is the ultimate prize that they are after, adding that his main goal for the team this year was “to make it as far as possible without beating ourselves.”

The Thunderwolves have been knocking on the door of national glory for the past three years. Maybe this is the year they push through.