PacWest Preview: Vancouver Island University Mariners

Brandon Jones looks to lead VIU back to the national stage in 2014. - Brian Jones photo

Brandon Jones looks to lead VIU back to the national stage in 2014. – Brian Jones Photo

Regular-season record: 16-5

Provincial tournament: Silver medallists

National tournament: Gold medallists

Key returning players:

  • Brandon Jones (4th year)
  • Clayton Billett (5th year)
  • Evan Verdel (5th year)
  • Jason McKee (3rd year)
  • Harrison Stupich (4th year)

Key losses:

  • Adam Connolly
  • Ryan Davidson
  • Tyler Olsen
  • Jon Bethell (injury)

Rookies:

  • Jerod Dorby
  • Seth Goodman
  • Bryson Cox
  • Liam Horne

Last March, after the Vancouver Island University Mariners conquered the CCAA’s best and took home gold in Montreal, they were awarded a plethora of hardware: a banner, individual medals and trophies, and customary championship rings.

But if you search for distinguishing jewelery on head coach Matt Kuzminski’s hands, you’re only going to be able to tell that he’s married, and not a national champion.

He doesn’t want to flaunt it. He doesn’t want to show it off. In fact, he doesn’t even want to think about it.

“We got our ring and everything, but I put all of that stuff away,” said Kuzminski. “I don’t really look at it and I don’t really think too much about the championship. I’m conscious of taking the approach where you have stay hungry and keep trying to get better. Any time you get content, I think that’s where you have a chance to slip up and people are going to pass you by.”

That approach – of not taking things for granted and refraining from being infected with overconfidence – has been a staple of VIU basketball for years. A mindset that has trickled down year after year, passed along from coaching staff to roster.

The veterans are more-than-likely to understand. They’re the ones who waited years to take a bite out of the gold coin looped through a bright-red lanyard. They know that the feeling isn’t perennial, and that it needs to be savoured – but not for too long.

Fifth-year senior Tyler Olsen has taken his prize and left upon the exhaustion of his collegiate eligibility. Forwards Adam Connolly and Ryan Davidson have left under other circumstances. And after a great first-year campaign that earned ROY honours, guard Jon Bethell has been riddled with serious injuries and will miss the 2013-14 season.

A lot has changed, but the attitude has remained the same.

“We had some success last year – but it’s done. It’s in the past,” said Kuzminski. “We’re trying to get our players on board with being super hungry this year, and we have a ton of work to do.”

Despite losing a trio of players that started playoff games, garnered provincial and national all-star nods, and boosted the Mariners in height, strength and skill, VIU is still returning a core that shouldn’t have a problem remaining near – and possibly on top of – the pinnacle of the PacWest.

Brandon Jones, the team’s best player and reigning provincial and national tournament MVP, is gearing up for a victory lap. Returning with Jones is the island-bred core of Clayton Billett, Evan Verdel, Jason McKee and Harrison Stupich. Each will likely embrace a jump in both minutes and expectations.

“We have a lot of guys who are somewhat-unproven in this league, so as far as the scouting, we count on our preparation and we don’t rely on last year too much,” said Kuzminski, suspicious of the notion that his roster has kept any considerable continuity.

“We’ll be prepared for sure, and whether or not guys are able to step in and adjust to this league right away – we’ll have to wait and see.”

That goes for the rookies, too.

In Kuzminski’s first full offseason as head coach, his recruiting efforts were hampered by the team playing well into March. But brevity notwithstanding, he still managed to scoop up talent from across the island – and across the continent.

The Mariner’s have added Woodlands guard Bryson Cox, Cowichan forward Jerod Dorby, and Oak Bay guard Liam Horne.

But aside from the usual pickups west of the Georgia Strait, Kuzminski was intrigued by an email he received from South Carolina. The email led to a video tape, and the tape led to 6-6 swingman Seth Goodman embarking on a 4,500-kilometre journey from Southern Wesleyan University to Nanaimo.

“I talked to a few of his coaches and they all spoke very highly of him, and then just because of our financial situation at the school – we can’t really afford to fly him out or have the whole visit thing – I had to go off of two videos and three coaches’ opinions, and we sort of had to take a chance on him,” said Kuzminski. “And when I talked to Seth too, he seemed like a great guy on the phone. Having him up here so far, he has potential, he’s very athletic and he has some talent. He’s a bit raw with the fundamentals and stuff, so I think he can be a big help to us if he catches up in those areas.”

An abundance of rookie potential, paired with a core that boasts experience and poise at the highest level, has VIU emerging as an early preseason favourite.

Granted, they still have to deal with a Langara Falcons squad that will undoubtedly be looking to repeat their historic yet ultimately dissapointing run last year – as well as the rest of the reloaded PacWest rosters.

But for Kuzminski and the Mariners, past accomplishments and accolades are just that – in the past.

“I don’t necessarily view us as a favourite,” said Kuzminski, echoing a classic Tony Bryce phrase. “That’s the approach I’m taking. Hopefully the guys do the same – and I think they are.”

It may be modesty, or it may just be rule number one in the VIU basketball handbook. Either way, it’s a simple philosophy that all Mariners – coaches and players – are abiding by as they look to repeat this upcoming season.

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