by Duncan Forbes
The Tigers men’s basketball needed to hit the reset button after stumbling to a 6-14 record last year that saw them miss the AUS playoffs for the first time since 2006. It wasn’t quite the start that rookie head coach Rick Plato had envisioned.
Plato brought in eight rookies which infused energy and life into a team that couldn’t seem to find their identity or rhythm all last season. They also brought back a strong core of veterans including Kashrell Lawrence, Ritchie Kanza Mata, Jarred Reid and Devon Stedman.
The team kicked off their season with a trip to Ontario where they went 1-2 but they captured a key 85-77 victory against former head coach John Campbell and the University of Toronto after Devon Stedman, Jarred Reid, Sven Stammberger, Sean Dodds and Jonathan Kamba all finished with double-digits in points.
The team then headed to Antigonish for the annual StFX pre-season Invitational where they got their first chance to go up against AUS competition. After giving up 26 points in the fourth quarter that led to a loss against the Cape Breton Capers in the first game, they rallied back to beat MSVU 81-58. This would end up being the first of five-straight wins as the Tigers finished the pre-season with a 6-3 record.
The pre-season also signalled the emergence of Sven Stammberger as a major contributor on the team. He won his way into Plato’s starting lineup with stellar play on both ends of the court. After totalling only 30 minutes of floor time last year, he’s certainly impressed coach Plato with his stand-out play.
“Sven is what I like to call a “low maintenance” player,” explains Plato. “He demonstrates a tremendous work ethic on the court and in the classroom and he is the type of individual who is mature and responsible well beyond his years. He’s the type of young man that if I had a daughter that I would be more than happy to have him ask her out on a date.”
They opened their regular season with a heartbreaking 95-88 overtime loss to the UPEI Panthers, despite Kashrell Lawrence dropping a career-high 31 points. They had their revenge the following day however, as the Tigers jumped out to a 14 point lead at halftime, and it was Jarred Reid’s turn to drop 31 as the Tigers got their first win of the season.
Since then, the Tigers have been absolutely rolling. They’ve won five straight games by an average of 11.8 points on their way to a first-place 5-1 record. Their strong defence has been the backbone of their success, and they’ve allowed an AUS-low 71.3 points per game. Plato says that he’s pleased to see his team buy into a defensive mindset and attributes their success to their focus on that end of the court.
“Unquestionably, it has been the emergence of the team’s belief and commitment to playing great defence, we call it “40 minutes of hell”. I’ve told them that to play great defence, they are going to have to be in great shape and that would take hard work, sacrifice and pain,” says Plato. “Everyone has accepted that challenge and after our two four-point victories over Saint Mary’s and Acadia, I believe the boys have come to realize that great defence DOES win games and could be instrumental in winning championships. I believe that the boys now understand that we are capable of winning and that the commitment to playing pressure defence for 40 minutes a game is essential.”
The emergence of Ritchie Kanza Mata as a legitimate AUS MVP candidate has helped propel the Tigers to new levels. After averaging nine points per game on 36.2% shooting in the first two years of his career, he’s now averaging 14.2 points per game on 50% shooting. He’s also expanded his range, knocking down 50% of his shots from behind the arc after only making 22% of his threes previously in his career.
A true floor general, Kanza Mata boats an AUS-best assist to turnover ratio of 4.8. The Tigers have kept much better control of the ball in the first half of the season, and their turnover rate of 14.0 per game is second-best in the AUS.
Kashrell Lawrence has carried the offensive load for the Tigers, averaging 20.0 points per game on 62.8% shooting. He’s ranked second in the AUS in field goal percentage and he has been unstoppable at times in the paint. At the beginning of the season, Lawrence and fellow veteran Jarred Reid found themselves out of the starting lineup. With their strong play thus far they have both reasserted themselves as starters and coach Plato couldn’t be happier with his third-year stars.
“Most gratifying is the manner in which both Kash and Jarred, who were not starting early in the season, never complained or sulked but put the team ahead of their own personal goals,” notes Plato. “The admiration and respect that I have for both of these young men cannot be overstated. They are to be commended for their team-first attitude.”
The Tigers will look to keep up the strong play in the second half of the season, and they’ll be back on the court at the annual Rod Shoveller tournament as they get some tune-up games in before the playoff stretch where they’ll attempt to reach the AUS final for the first time since they won it all back in 2011.