As Mother Nature continues to drop the temperature in Edmonton, the Bears and Pandas are retreating indoors, and the action in the Saville Centre is set to heat up.
Both U of A basketball teams hit the hardcourt to open their regular season against the visiting Brandon University Bobcats. For the Pandas, Friday night represents the first step in improving on a disappointing end to a great season last year, while the Bears will start the long climb back up the mountain to the pinnacle of CIS basketball after a silver medal finish.
“We had a difficult end to last season,” veteran Pandas head coach Scott Edwards said. “I think until mid-January we were ranked in the top five in the country and feeling really good about ourselves, and then we just didn’t play very well at the end of the year. So the biggest thing for us is learning from that experience, understanding what it felt like to not make it as far as we wanted to last season.”
As for the Bears, despite losing star fifth-year point guard Daniel Ferguson, building upon their success from last season is an attainable goal, according to assistant coach Jon Verhesen. He stresses that the Bears have the pieces in place to meet their high expectations.
“When you lose someone as special as Daniel Ferguson, it’s definitely tough to replace that. And not just his numbers, but his leadership role,” Verhesen said. “He was a fifth-year guy, guys looked to him. But the nice part about our crew is we have a good core group that have grown together. They’ve gone through the .500 season and seen the growth.”
Both teams will still have a number of experienced players when they hit the floor this weekend. Edwards is excited to see how his senior Pandas will perform this season now that they’re nearing the end of their CIS careers.
“It’s always fun watching fifth-years. They kind of get to the end of their career and they realize this is it and they put that little bit extra into it — and there’s just the maturity that you have of another year,” said Edwards. “I’m really looking at fifth-year Anneka Bakker and Katie Arbuthnot to lead the way. Those two kids are going to be important to us, and they know the ups and downs of CanWest. They’ve played a national semi-final once in their career and they know what it’s all about.”
Edwards also added that third-year guard Saskia VanGinhoven will be relied upon to provide a lot of scoring for the team. The Bears, on the other hand, have reigning CIS first team all-Canadian Jordan Baker who tried out with the senior men’s national team in Toronto this summer.
“He’s huge. He’s one of our leaders, our go-to guy,” Verhesen said. “The whole country knows about him; all gameplans are geared around him. He’s a smart player, he’s a heady player and he has the ability not only to score but to get teammates involved. He rebounds the ball — one of the best in the country at it. He’s definitely a big part of our success.”
Along with their veterans, both teams have new additions from the college and high school ranks. The Pandas have added high school ballers Maddie Rogers and Kendall Lydon as well as Grant Mac transfer Jessilyn Fairbanks, all three of whom are Alberta natives, to their roster.
Meanwhile, the Bears are bringing in college transfers Noble Crowfoot from Lethbridge Community College and Youssef Ouahrig from Champlain College in Montreal. The latter, whom Verhesen described as “a potential all-Canadian,” is expected to make an impact right away at the point guard position. He’ll be serving as the team’s new starter while other new recruits Lyndon Annetts and Tommy Watson will help give the team depth down the stretch.
The Bears also added CanWest all-star guard Joel Friesen and his head coach at Fraser Valley, Barnaby Craddock, replacing former head coach Greg Francis. The two former Cascades helped lead UFV to a surprise run at the CIS final eight last spring.
“You bring in a Canada West all-star like (Friesen) in every practice, guys have to compete against that. He’s one of the best players in the country. And now that we have the ability to practice with him, he’s making all our young guys better and making our older guys better,” Verhesen said.
“(Craddock’s) a little different from (Francis). I think we were all a little shocked when (Francis) left, but guys have banded together. (Craddock’s) come in here and done a great job. Guys are starting to buy in. Everything’s new, so we’re going through those learning phases of adapting to a new coach.
“But guys are starting to understand, starting to get on the same page, and things are starting to slowly get their way working in the right direction again.”
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