OUA Men’s Basketball Preview: The Wild, Wild West

HAMILTON, ON – One of the storylines and narratives that developed around the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) West division in 2019-20 was how wide open it was.

The Western Mustangs headed the pack with a 16-6 record with Wilfrid Laurier (11-11), Windsor (11-11) and Guelph (10-12) following behind. With some of strong former OUA Central Division teams joining in division leader Lakehead, the perennially tough Marauders and a veteran Brock side, the competition promises to be fierce for the playoff spots this season. “There is no clear favourite in the OUA West,” Guelph head coach Chris O’Rourke told the Gryphons website. “We expect there to be lots of close games with lots of teams fighting it out for playoff positioning in our division.”

Although the narrative has been that the traditional powers (Ottawa, Carleton, the Rams) reside in the East division, the Western Mustangs proved they can go far in the OUA playoffs and national championships as well. The Mustangs – led fifth-years Nikola Farkic and Eriq Jenkins alongside fourth-year Omar Shiddo – outlasted OUA Player of the Year Kadre Gray and Laurentian in the quarterfinals before beating the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks in a barnburner of a game, a 104-101 overtime thriller. The Mustangs pushed Carleton in the OUA finals and the national semi-finals. They pulled off an upset over the higher seeded Alberta Golden Bears at nationals as well before falling short of a podium finish with a loss to UBC in the bronze medal match. 

Will Western emerge from the West again or will someone else take their place? The competition promises to be fierce. The preseason could be a sign of that as every team except Algoma has a winning record and Brock, Guelph, Lakehead, Western and Laurier are all undefeated.

Algoma Thunderbirds 

Preseason Record: 0-5

Kascius Small-Martin (Photo: Mackenzie Gerry/Brock Badgers)

Life in the OUA has been a rough existence so far for the Algoma Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds have yet to taste the playoffs since they joined the league in 2013. The team is on its second head coach after Thomas Cory left to join Nipissing. Etienne Jacquet was hired to replace him. Jacquet boasts a lengthy coaching resume with over 20 years at the high school, OCAA, CEGEP level as well as professionally as an assistant with the now defunct Ottawa Skyhawks of the NBL Canada. 

In his first season, the Thunderbirds went 2-20 but this year’s roster includes a number of transfers with previous collegiate experience on other teams. Some of the more notable ones include guard Maxime Bellony (Concordia) – the team’s leading scorer in preseason –, Joel Thabize (Gillette, Tallahassee, Providence) and Teddy Bodock Kobe (Cape Breton). They are aided by returning forward Vincent Falardeau and rookie Roman Niro, who scored a career high 23 points in an exhibition loss to Winnipeg. Given how deep the OUA West is, Algoma will be in a battle every single game on their quest to earning their first playoff appearance.

Brock Badgers 

Preseason Record: 5-0

Much like the Rams with Roy Rana and Carleton with Dave Smart, the Brock Badgers were faced with a question: how do you replace a legendary coach and move forward? For the Badgers, that meant replacing Charles Kissi in 2018, who is now the Guelph Nighthawks head coach and general manager as well as being an assistant coach with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA’s G League. After one season of Madhav Trivedi as the head coach, former Ravens player and assistant coach Willy Manigat was hired.

The team went 12-10 in his first season in 2019-20 before losing in the opening round of the playoffs to McMaster but there is a ton of returning experience in 2021-22. Veterans Kascius Small-Martin, Daniel Cayer and Daniel Caldwell are all back. Manigat also has some former Ravens in TJ Lall and Emmanuel Owootoah (who redshirted with Brock in 2019-20) ready to make their Badger debuts. Add on top of that a few NCAA transfers in Isaiah Bujdoso (Loyola Chicago), Jevon Brown (Western Texas, Binghamton), Brandon Charles (Cleveland State) and William Boyer-Richard (Western Michigan). One of the things Manigat values is positional flexibility on both ends of the floor, a part of modern basketball. 

“We just have basketball players, we’re not looking at positions,” Manigat told the Brock Press. “That’s the nice thing about basketball, [it’s] a positionless game now. We don’t even call the point guard spot on our team the ‘point guard’, we just have guards. We’ve got a ton of guys who can do different things.”

With their talent and experience, this Brock squad could be primed for a deep playoff run.

Guelph Gryphons 

Preseason Record: 3-0

Under the helm of long-time coach Chris O’Rourke (the longest tenured coach in OUA men’s basketball entering his 25th season), the Gryphons have been consistent. They make the playoffs more years than not – including in each of the past two seasons – but have yet to go far in the postseason. The Gryphons have yet to win a playoff game since 2012. 

“We feel very good about our team’s depth and we have a great mix of experience and youth,” O’Rourke told the Gryphons’ website. “We are skilled at the guard position, Rasheed (Weekes) anchors our forward spot, but we also have some guys, like Viktor (Nausedas) emerging. Andrew (Ackerman) and Felix (Janusaukas) are intriguing talents, while Malcolm (Glanville) and K.D. (Keenan Dowell) are proven players in our backcourt.”

The cast is bolstered but some transfers in Khalid Ismail (Humber), Jalen Mason (Niagara University), Carl Veltmann (George Brown College) and Brandon Halliburton (Durham College). The early returns have been promising with the team undefeated in preseason play with wins over Toronto, Sheridan College and the Rams as Weekes is leading the team with 20.7 points-per-game and 8.7 rebounds-per-game. The eternal question will be, come postseason time, whether they can get over that proverbial hump. 

Lakehead Thunderwolves 

Preseason Record: 4-0

In many ways, 2019-20 was a magical season for the Thunderwolves, bringing back memories of their 2010-11 season which culminated in a Wilson Cup win over the Ravens and a fifth-place finish at nationals. Last season, led by team MVP and OUA All-Star Isaiah Traylor as well as U Sports and OUA Defensive Player of the Year Lock Lam, Lakehead won the OUA Central division with a 17-5 record before losing to Laurier in the OUA quarterfinals. 

Fast forward almost two years later as Traylor and Lam are gone. However, some of the key players are back with OUA and U Sports all-rookie team member Laoui Msambya primed to take on a bigger role alongside former Spanish junior national team forward Eric Gonzales and Ottawa guard Alston Harris, Lakehead’s rookie of the year in 2018-19. 

Head coach Ryan Thomson also adds some help on the coaching staff with new assistant coach (and former Thunderwolves guard) Katie Ulakovic. She’s the first women’s coach at Lakehead men’s basketball and brings high school basketball coaching experience. “It’s a really, really cool experience,” Ulakovic told CBC News. “And I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with these guys.” Meanwhile, the rest of the OUA will be looking to see how the Thunderwolves follow up their success of 2019-20. 

McMaster Marauders 

Preseason Record: 4-2

Jordan Henry (Photo: Rick Zazulak/McMaster Marauders)

In the first episode of the Marauders’ All-Access series, head coach Patrick Tatham is talking about and wearing his OUA Champions hat from his time as the interim head coach with the Rams. It serves as a reminder of the heights he wants the program to reach. As the players point up how battered the hat is, Tatham – amid the laughter – deadpans: “Do you have one though?” Which of course, provoked more laughter. 

The Marauders’ status as contenders is no joke though. McMaster – consistently a strong team in the OUA even before Tatham arrived – is looking to take that next step and reach OUA finals and nationals. Tatham has experienced it as part of the Rams. In the video, he stresses the importance of team culture and togetherness. Now in his fifth season at Mac, he’ll have a strong group to try and reach those goals. 

Leading scorer Jordan Henry is back, a do-it-all point guard who can run the offence. He’s among their large group of freshmen from a couple of years ago, who are now becoming OUA veterans. The group also includes guards Tristan Lindo and Sefa Otchere. Tatham has also brought in a couple of NCAA transfers, including Christian Bentley (Siena, Iowa Western, Youngstown State) and Mychael Paulo (Montana State, Williston State). Bentley and Paulo have made an immediate impact during exhibition play as McMaster has notched wins over Concordia, Humber College, Redeemer and the Rams. They’ve also lost games to Toronto and Ontario Tech. How this team progresses could determine how soon – like their coach – they will be wearing OUA championship hats as well. 

Waterloo Warriors 

Preseason Record: 4-3

Troy Stevenson quickly found himself as the Waterloo Warriors head coach after former bench boss Justin Gunter left the Warriors for an administrative position at McMaster in the summer of 2018, just before the season was about to begin. Previously, the Warriors associate head coach, Stevenson guided the team in his first year as head coach to a 5-17 record in 2019-20 as the team searches to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018.

Now, two seasons later, the Warriors will have a number of their key contributors back. Top among them is fifth-year power forward Nedim Hodzic, who has shown an ability to score from different parts of the floor. A former OUA all-star and team MVP, Hodzic has put up big scoring numbers in every season. Returning starters Kuel Thomas, Jayden Grewal and Justin Malnerich join him as continuity figures to be a team strength amid all the turnover around the league. One addition to keep an eye on is Windsor Lancer transfer Kanayo Nnadi who has made a notable contribution so far this preseason, scoring in double figures (10.3 points-per-game). 

Stevenson’s team already has a few preseason victories under their belt as well, over Ontario Tech, York, Sheridan College and Conestoga College. Their losses have come to the Rams, Laurentian and Humber College. It will be intriguing to see whether having so many returning starters is an advantage for the Warriors, especially right out of the gate for a team looking to continue gaining continuity under their third-year head coach. 

Western Mustangs 

Preseason Record: 4-0

Mustangs take the W over the Waterloo Warriors - Western Mustangs Sports
(Western Mustangs)

The season was truly a whirlwind – incapsulated the most by their victory-for-the-ages over the Laurier Golden Hawks in the OUA semi-finals. A few days later, still riding off that emotional high, the Mustangs challenged the Ravens but fell short of OUA gold. Going as far as they did at both the OUA playoffs and nationals has tied a high water mark for Campbell’s time at Western – when they finished second in the OUA in 2007-08 and 2008-09. The accomplishments keep pouring in for Campbell himself as he was part of Charles Kissi’s coaching staff with the Guelph Nighthawks this past summer. 

While led fifth-years Nikola Farkic and Eriq Jenkins have departed, OUA all-star Omar Shiddo is back and is off to a strong start so far this preseason, averaging 19.3 points-per-game, 4.0 rebounds per game and shooting 41.7 percent from three. Much like 2019-20, Shiddo won’t be alone in leading the Mustangs to glory. Second-year guard Jerric Palma and Aaron Tennant are also having strong preseason showings. Campbell has also brought in some additional OUA experience from their rival Windsor Lancers with fourth/fifth year forward Anthony Zrvnar. In some ways their biggest intangible could be that nationals and playoff experience from 2019-20, something that could help the team come crunch time again. 

Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks 

Preseason Record: 5-0

Ali Sow (Photo: Eva Ou/Laurier Athletics)

When Justin Serresse was hired as the Golden Hawks’ head coach in 2016, he became the youngest head coach in OUA men’s basketball at age of 29. Now, five years later, Serresse has continued to reach new heights. The team reached the playoffs in 2017, won a playoff game in 2018, finished 18-6 in 2019 and won two playoff matches and came a few points away from an OUA finals and a berth at nationals. 

Part of the success is a focus on being versatile on and off the court, in the “game of life.” “I always talk about the game of life and the guys kind of make fun of me sometimes,” Serresse told the Cord. “The players got to believe that they have to be successful in practice, in the classroom and in the community.” During the pandemic, he connected with his players, focusing on their success both in and outside of the sport. 

Now, with OUA basketball back, it’s no secret that the biggest key to the Golden Hawk’s future success on the hardwood is Ali Sow. The Ottawa guard has been dynamic from day one of his university career and now has gained professional experience playing with his hometown Ottawa Blackjacks this offseason. With seniors Matthew Minutillo, Ntore Habimana (who played from Rwanda’s national team at Afrobasket this summer) and Kemel Archer (who played in the CEBL and overseas) no longer around, a new cast of supporting characters will have to step up. So far, in the Golden Hawks’ 5-0 preseason, they have with fourth-year guard Romello Taylor, Joshua Massela-Mbongo-Kim, Ben Stevens and Kareem Elliot filling those roles. Meanwhile guard Benhur Gherbrekidan (whose brother Biniam plays for Carleton) has seen an expanded role in his second year. 

Having come so close to making nationals, the question is whether Laurier will go one step further in 2021-22, taking advantage of Sow’s veteran experience and ability. Serresse certainly seems to be looking forward. When asked by the Cord what his favourite moment at Laurier is, he replied: “The next one. The one we haven’t done yet.”

Windsor Lancers

Preseason Record: 2-1

The Windsor Lancers under former head coach Chris Oliver had been a staple as an OUA contender. Now, with third-year coach Chris Cheng, they look to continue that success. Cheng’s first season in 2019-20 ended with an 11-11 record and a first round playoff exit to Laurentian. In his second year, he has a program pillar in third-year forward Thomas Kennedy (fresh off a summer with the Hamilton Honey Badgers) and a familiar face behind the bench. 

The Lancers hired former Lancer All-Canadian Greg Surmacz, who led Windsor to its first OUA title in 28 years, as an assistant coach this offseason. He told the Windsor Star he can help with coaching and working with the players as he pursues his post-graduate studies. One of those players looking to emulate him is Kennedy, due to playing the same position and his professional aspirations. He grew up watching Surmacz play at Windsor. “My Wednesday and Saturday nights, as a kid, were always at the St. Denis Centre,” Kennedy told the Windsor Star. “I saw him play a lot and in my recruitment process to Windsor, his name was used a lot as a position Chris Oliver wanted me to play.”

In 2021, much like Surmacz was doing over a decade earlier, Kennedy will be among those leading the way as Windsor looks to make the playoffs and go beyond. Notable contributors from 2019-20, Shakael Price and Telloy Simon are back as well. Price currently leads the Lancers in scoring this preseason (18.7 points-per-game) while Kennedy leads the team in rebounds (9.7). Like Surmacz, another addition with championship experience is Xavier Ochu, who was AUS Defensive Player of the Year at Dalhousie in 2019-20. He was an integral part of the Dal team that dominated AUS play, won two AUS titles and came oh so close to winning a national title against the powerhouse Carleton Ravens in the U Sports finals. 

With Surmacz and Ochu part of the program, the Lancers have individuals who know what it takes to reach the highest levels. Now, they just have to get there. 

Players to Watch 

  • Thomas Kennedy (F) Windsor– Kennedy had a breakout second year in 2019-20 and has gained professional experience with the Hamilton Honey Badgers. 
  • Omar Shiddo (G) Western- The lone fifth-year player on the Mustangs, the former OUA all-start will be asked to replicate if not elevate his performance from 2019-20 for Western to reach the OUA finals once more. 
  • Ali Sow (G) Laurier- the Ottawa native seems like one of the front-runners for OUA Player of the Year and is even more seasoned after a summer with the Ottawa Blackjacks. 
  • Jordan Henry (G) McMaster- Henry has had a long winding road to Mac with stops at Ryerson and Western before this. The former U19 gold medalist and OUA All-star will look to take the next step in his progression. 
  • TJ Lall (F) Brock- the former Carleton Raven has ended up at Brock with an opportunity to be a major player for the Badgers squad loaded with talent and experience. 

Featured Cover Image: Omar Shiddo (Photo: Sean Burges/Western Mustangs)

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