The University of Manitoba Bisons men’s basketball team is riding high heading into the second half of the year. Fresh off their first Wesmen Classic holiday tournament win since 1991 and riding a four-game win streak from before the break, there’s plenty to get excited about.
Manitoba is currently deadlocked in a three-way tie for first place in the pioneer division, sitting at 6-2 with 12 points. But the players and coaches alike know there’s still plenty to be decided over the last 12 games, including co-captain Wyatt Anders, who currently leads the nation in defensive rebounds, rebounds per game, and total rebounds.
Anders caught up with the Manitoban over the break for the first instalment of “Questions and Anders” to discuss the first half of the year and what to expect going forward from his squad.
Manitoban: What are your thoughts on the first half of the year and the way your team has performed as a whole?
Anders: From what I saw from the pre-season, to the first half, to now, we’re slowly getting our identity locked in place. If you looked at our pre-season on how individual we were, and how much we didn’t know how to work with each other, till now, now you see [centre] Brett Jewell dunking on people, now you see [forward] Malik Irwin gaining a steal, passing, and getting excited and not going ‘I’m going coast-to-coast, I did my job, [guard] Justus [Alleyn] go do your job.’” Then you have [forward] John Alexander working when he gets in, you have [swingman] Keith Omoerah doing what he does best – attacking the rim. People are doing what they do best and they’re slowly buying in more and more and you can see it.
M: You’ve beaten two teams that are either currently in the CIS top 10, or were ranked there when you faced them, yet you’ve gotten very little recognition in the polls thus far. What do you think you have to do to earn that validation, and does it motivate you more knowing you’re still somewhat under the radar?
A: The player in me wants to be upset and wants to work harder on it, but trying to go on an unbiased opinion, I understand. We did the same thing last year where we started off the first half strong [8-2 heading into the break, 1-9 afterwards] but this schedule is a bit tougher than it was last year, so we do have some weight under us. When people look at our Calgary loss, it was an overtime loss, it’s not like they beat us by 30, so why can’t we get some recognition? When we lost to Saskatchewan, we were up the whole game and we blew it at the end, it’s not like we were down the whole time. Little things like that you’d think the coaches would put more thought into.
I think the biggest annoyance for our team was that out of the Canada West [in a pre-season coaches’ poll], we were ranked 12th or 13th, so it kind of shows what the league thought of us. If we handle business in the second half – just that first set of six games – we’ll be in the top 10. If we don’t, then I’ll be like “OK people hate us.”
M: You brought up the strong start last season. What do you think the team has to do to avoid a second-half collapse occurring again?
A: Last year, there were a couple of lingering injuries that really set us away. Victoria we almost had in the first night at home, then we got beat the second night handily. When we went to Alberta and we won the first night, [former guard] Steph Walton had some hip issues that he was working out and both [former forward] Andre Arruda and Justus sprained their ankle which they were trying to recover from, John was out for a long time at practice, and it was really tough to try and keep that ship afloat. This year is a little different because we don’t have any injuries right now, thank goodness, and we have guys coming out of their shells.
This chemistry is completely different than last year, where you’d have Malik come in and be like ‘is he going to help out?’ Now, when Malik comes in, no one thinks that. Brett being a starter is helping him big time as well. It’s just huge, the cohesiveness we have, and our starting five plus the next two, three guys are all solid.
M: You’ve mentioned Malik and Brett on a few different occasions. Talk a bit about their role in the Wesmen Classic specifically in helping your squad secure the title.
A: We know what [guard] AJ Basi, Justus, Keith, as well as myself will bring. But the small things Brett and Malik bring don’t really get recognition. They had such a great tournament at the Wesmen Classic. Brett scored 16 in the third game and I think he shot 50 to 60 per cent in the whole tournament, and defensively he took care of work.
Then Malik, man, when you saw him against Lethbridge in the first game, he worked his tail off. He and I were just on the same circuit. Whenever I forced a guy to drive, boom, he was there at the help side. The biggest lingering factor of last year was that when I was on the perimeter guarding, there wasn’t a help side, but now that we’ve got Brett and Malik in, every time there’s help and communication and I love it, so huge shout-out to those guys.
M: Lastly, just how important have [guard] Ilarion Bonhomme II and a returning Keith been, in terms of making your squad more well rounded?
A: Having Keith back is a real blessing. The years off, maturity-wise, really helped him. If he didn’t have that maturity, he would still be a little bit loose, but since he was able to mature as a person, he’s shown his true potential and kept it on lock. As for Ilarion, the little dude is tough! I’ve never seen a guy get hit and hammered so much and still get up and ready to fight – he doesn’t back down from anyone and offensively he’s a firecracker that can blow by you really quickly.
Because of what he brings and his unselfishness, we’re able to be deep. Very few people with his experience and skill would want to come off the bench – and I know he was recruited by other teams – but he eventually chose to come here.
The Bisons kick off the second half of the season away against the University of Victoria on Jan. 8 at 10 p.m.