THUNDER BAY - The seeds of something special have been planted at Lakehead after qualifying for the OUA playoffs in Ryan Thomson’s first full season as head coach.
After a 2-10 start in conference play, the men’s basketball team rallied to close the season winning seven of their final 10 games.
What began as a chaotic blend of new faces with undetermined roles, quickly shaped into one of the OUA West’s most exciting and competitive teams.
The season ended with a four-point loss to Brock in the first round of the OUA playoffs.
In Thomson’s first full season as head coach, the team improved their conference record by eight games, and saw the team return to the playoffs for the first time in two years.
“We weren’t necessarily clear on the roles right away. I think once we kind of figured that out, that’s when we started to have our success,” he said.
The learning curve was steep for Thomson after bringing in seven new faces, and overhauling the system the remaining players had learned.
From the cracks emerged the former Division-I NCAA guard Isaiah Traylor. Traylor became the de facto leader, and leading scorer as the season progressed.
“It was the start of something special. New coaches, new players, new system,” he said.
For his final year, Traylor is doubling down as a leader and buying into his role.
“Stick to the game plan. No self-motives,” he said. “I was brought here to score the ball, but I mainly just want to get other guys in the right spot. Let other guys get the feel of the game.”
Leadership, like any year, will be important in getting the five new players accustomed.
Thomson’s recruiting class features Quebec guard Laoui Msambaya; Jamani Barrett and Chume Nwige - two transfers from a junior college in Texas; Toronto guard Rayshawn Scarlett, and Spanish big man Eric Gonzalez.
“It’s been a long time without basketball games and I really miss it,” said Gonzalez, who arrived in Canada for the first time last week.
Gonzalez played on the Spanish national team as a teenager, before coming overseas to play in the U.S., but was forced to redshirt due to an injury.
“I was trying to stay in the U.S., but (Thomson) talked to me about the league, about Canada and I really liked what he said. It was the most stable decision for me.”
The coaching staff expects Gonzalez to make an immediate impact, citing his length and shooting ability as an area where Lakehead is looking to improve.
Last season’s emergence of a reliable backcourt helped propel Lakehead to a postseason spot. The three-man combo of Nick Burke, Alston Harris, and Blake Anderson shared the backcourt and paced a high-energy style of play.
With Burke gone, the pair are ready to step up.
“It was really hard to mesh (last year), so we did whatever we had to do,” Harris said. “It’s going to be more fluid. Last year, even coach was trying to figure out what guys can do.”
Harris, a feisty guard from Ottawa is expected to take a leap as a scorer and facilitator. Just one week into training camp, he was making his presence felt by shouting at teammates to step up to the challenge.
“There’s no point of babying them. We’re here to compete at a high level, so like, that’s what I expect out of people every day,” Harris said.
“At the end of the day, as a team, we all know it’s love,” Anderson added. “We can yell at each other in practice, but off the court we know we have each others backs.”
The guards, (speaking during a post-practice ice bath) said the level of comfort compared to last year is miles apart.
“We’re so much more comfortable,” Anderson said. “I know all the guys, we all know their strengths. We’re going to find guys in the right spot.”
With comfort comes confidence. When asked if Lakehead could take that next step, and contend beyond the first round of the playoffs, there wasn’t any hesitation.
“100 per cent. Not a doubt in my mind,” Anderson said.
“There really isn’t anything else to say on that.”