“I want this program to be a program that makes the playoffs every year,” head coach Steve Hanson said. “Until we’re a top six team, I won’t stop.”
It’s a great vision from the first-year bench boss.
In six years playing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — four of them eligible for a postseason berth — the team hasn’t made it once. The closest was in then-head coach James Blake’s last season in 2014–15, when they took a 6–12 conference record to seventh place, short of the standings by one place.
That’s the big picture plan, though. They won’t be making the playoffs this year, and Hanson’s not trying to deceive anyone; he’s fully aware of the challenges ahead.
“The goal is to win every game, so you ask me what the expectation is, we want to go undefeated,” he said. “But that’s not reality.”
This is the third season with a different head coach, with Blake’s successor, Virgil Hill, having left after only one season.
It was a tough season. From November to February, the team embarked on an 18-game losing streak, and finished 2–24 overall. Just one win came from a conference opponent, the other coming against Douglas College, which SFU usually handily beats.
To add insult to injury, there was a high amount of roster turnover — despite having only one senior — during and after the season, which saw the team lose some of its best players. Star freshman Oshea Gairey, who with 13.3 points per game looked to be the future of the men’s basketball team, left the program after the season. Junior transfer Max Barkeley, who was probably the most exciting to watch, parted ways with four games left in the season.
Hill resigned in April, leaving the team a shortened recruiting season.
Hanson, who was the lead assistant coach on the team last year, is likely in for another tough year. Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts, and with the turnover of coaches and players, it could be seen as a lost year.
This team probably won’t put up too many wins, but that’s not the main focus this season.
“Right now, it’s just laying the groundwork, and it’s something we have to continually talk about — is creating a culture. I mean, regardless of what happens in the games, it’s how we play,” said Hanson. “We’re still in the building phase of trying to create a culture in which if anyone walks into practice, we want to be the hardest working team in the league. [. . .] I want the fans to appreciate how hard we play.”
With only two seniors and four juniors listed on the team, it’s going to be a young team.
“I think the young guys bring a ton of energy and excitement, but they’re green, so when they start playing some 24-year-old men who have been in his league for three or four years, it’s tough,” Hanson explained. “We only have two seniors. [. . .] They’ve been through three coaches now, they’ve been through some really tough times, and I think that will really help the team a lot.”
In addition to the youth factor, it’s going to be a lot of new faces. The team brought in a recruiting class of five, four of whom are transfers from other collegiate institutions: junior Kedar Wright from UBC (CIS), redshirt freshman Vinnie Safin from Chico State (NCAA Div II), junior Iziah Sherman-Newsome from Laramie County Community College (junior college), and redshirt freshman Michael Provenzano from Lake Superior State (NCAA Div II). Out of this class, the only pure freshman is guard Othniel Spence.
Wright, who was initially supposed to play with the team last year but sat out, is expected to be an “impact player.” In his final season with UBC, Wright put up 11.8 points per game and in seven of the eight final games, he played over 30 minutes. The Ubyssey wrote that he “was often delegated the task of guarding opposing teams’ most dangerous offensive ball handler,” and that he “gets in the face of his defensive assignments and plays with a little bit of an attitude.”
The team also added two walk-ons. The 6’1” guard Bongani Moyo was already a student at SFU, and had actually tried out the year before. Hanson is still deciding where he fits with the team in his freshman season, but Moyo is “probably not in the rotation right now.” The other walk-on, Devin Cvinatovich, a 6’7” forward who played at Kwantlen before their athletic program folded, will be the program’s lone redshirt.
Right now, it’s just laying the groundwork, and it’s something we have to continually talk about — is creating a culture
Rounding out the new faces are two players not new to the team, but who will be playing their first year of college basketball. The 6’7” forwards Aleks Vranjes and Graham Miller will jump in the rotation after redshirting last year.
Previously announced recruit Chase Hobenshield will not be joining the team, instead taking his services to Vancouver Island University. Hobenshield was expected to redshirt. As well, a Serbian recruit fell through because he did not meet SFU’s English proficiency standards.
“We’re a little bit different than the other schools,” said Hanson of the difficulties recruiting for SFU. “A lot of the junior college academic expectations are not high enough for SFU, so a lot of talent, so a lot of talented junior college players will go to some of our rival schools that just don’t have the same academic standards, so I’d say we miss out on 70, 80 percent of the talent that’s out there because they can’t get into SFU. That’s what we’re up against.”
Only six players who played minutes for SFU last season return this year. Of the pack, JJ Pankratz and Gibran Sewani will probably lead the team offensively. Andrew Williamson and Bowen Bakken proved themselves last year in their freshman season as guys capable of playing big minutes and adding to the secondary scoring. Hidde Vos, one of two seniors, and Tyrell Lewin, the tallest player on the team at 6’8’, round out the core.
As per NCAA rules, the team could only begin full practices October 15. For that, SFU began their season practicing in Whistler.
Conference play doesn’t begin until December. However, before that, the team embarks on a series of exhibition games and non-conference games, which were chosen by Hanson.
“A lot of teams have more T-shirt scrimmages early,” explained Hanson. “I just want to play the best competition all the time, because that’s who we’re playing in league. So we’re playing a couple of teams that we should have some confidence with early — that’s not a bad thing, we didn’t have too many wins last year — so I think it’s good to get some positive things going, but we’re playing some really tough teams all year long.”
This non-conference scheduling is something the first-year head coach is learning on the job.
“I think every year you get a little wiser,” he said. “I think there’s even some things now that I look at the schedule that I might change for next year as far as when we start playing. We’re playing pretty early this year, but we’ll see how it works out.”
This year, the goal will be putting the pieces in place for the team of the future. Like the football team right now, which suffered a similar coaching carousel, a great deal of this season will be in how this team reacts to adversity — because there will be losses.
The men’s basketball team begins play with exhibition games against Douglas College and Columbia Bible College this Saturday and Tuesday respectively.