Hoop hopes: Sea-Hawks optimistic on eve of new season

John Browne
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Memorial begins 2009-10 AUS schedule against visiting Acadia on Saturday

Memorial University men's basketball coach Peter Benoite has higher expectations for his team in his second year at the helm of the Sea-Hawks.

And, pragmatically speaking, after a 3-17 season in 2008-09 and finishing seventh in the eight-team AUS men's basketball conference, there's really no place to go but up.

Memorial University Sea Hawks men's basketball assistant coach Evan Constantine uses an exercise ball to duplicate the strength of opposing paint players against Robbie Habib as the team practised at the Field House Wednesday night. - Photo by Kenn Oliver

Memorial University men's basketball coach Peter Benoite has higher expectations for his team in his second year at the helm of the Sea-Hawks.

And, pragmatically speaking, after a 3-17 season in 2008-09 and finishing seventh in the eight-team AUS men's basketball conference, there's really no place to go but up.

The Sea-Hawks have been to the bottom before, having lost all 20 games under Todd Aughey two years ago. The last time Memorial was in the playoffs was 2005-06, when the Sea-Hawks posted a 9-10 record before losing 88-84 to UPEI Panthers in the quarter-finals. MUN is 24-75 over the last five seasons.

The Sea-Hawks haven't been good for a while, but there's always hope at the start of a new season.

Memorial opens the 2009-10 campaign at home this weekend with a pair of games against Acadia Axemen, 8 p.m. Saturday night and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Field House.

"I feel we are much better then last year," said Benoite. "The team has come together much more quickly. Most guys are getting fairly comfortable with our offensive and defensive philosophies and so we are much further ahead then we were at this point last year."

Benoite expectation for the team "first and foremost" is to improve on last year's season.

But the obvious target, he admitted, is a playoff spot for the Sea-Hawks.

"No doubt, we have a team that can do that this year," he said.

Acadia was sixth last season with 6-14 record before losing a quarter-final by three points to the Dalhousie Tigers, who went on to win the AUS championship. The Sea-Hawks and Axemen split a pair of regular-season games last season.

"Last year, I thought we would have to get lucky to make playoffs, but this year, I feel we can get there, and then, who knows?" said Benoite.

"Our size this year certainly helps us. (Lack of height) was a big void last year, and the fact we are in much better condition - both physically and mentally - will help us tremendously.

"I expect us to be in a lot more closer games, and I feel we will win our share of them this year."

But, as Benoite pointed out, with higher expectations comes higher responsibility.

"That's an area we're not used to being in and we'll have to see how well we can handle that. I've put a great more accountability on each of our players. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

"We've put in the work to be successful this year, but putting in the work only gives you the opportunity to compete. It doesn't guarantee wins. We will have to execute and be efficient, particularly late in games when each possession becomes so much more important. This league is tough, and there are no easy games for us. We'll have to earn every win. We are quite capable of getting our share, but so are the other teams."

There are other areas where the Sea-Hawks feel there's reason for some optimism.

"I've been really pleased with our team chemistry so far," Benoite said. "The guys have been gelling together well and we are starting to look like we can run an offence. Last year, that was a struggle at times.

"The guys are getting much more comfortable with reads, and they are letting the ball do the work more now then when we started. Once we start knocking down shots, we'll be tough to contend with. Our defence has improved throughout the pre-season and this weekend will be a good test to see if it can hold up to Acadia. They rebound extremely hard, and if we don't box them out, they could walk away with two wins.

"I've challenged our guys to step up and be more physical in the paint and block guys out. It's slowly coming and I'm hoping it will show up this weekend."

Benoite said the Axemen are looking pretty good.

"They have Alex Traikov, who puts up solid numbers for them and is tough to stop inside," said Benoite. "We'll have to contain him as much as we can and make other guys (try to) beat us. They've also got Owen Klassen, a 6-10 freshman from Ontario who has been playing well in the preseason. He will be tough as well, especially since we have to focus on Traikov.

"Casey Fox can hurt us as well. He's a streaky shooter who can get hot in a hurry, as well as take guys off the dribble. Also back for them is (former Sea-Hawk) Andre Grant, who is a tremendous athlete who penetrates so well.

"If they get too much penetration on us that will cause us a lot of trouble.

"However, I feel that if we keep doing what we've been doing so far, and execute with a little bit more efficiency, we'll give ourselves a good chance (to win)."


Some of the new Sea-Hawks, with coach Peter Benoite's remarks:
Justin Grainger: "Justin is fitting in nicely. He gives us much more athleticism on the wing and out on the break. He'll continue to improve as he makes the adjustment back to basketball from rugby. He is making too many turnovers right now, but that's normal for players just out of high school."
Alex Harding: "Alex has been a pleasant surprise. He is a much better basketball player now then when he was when I brought him down in March. That's a good sign for the future as he has a good work ethic and a desire to get better and improve. I initially thought of him as having a development year with us, but we think he is going to be ready to give some minutes ... and he will learn a lot more by banging with the other posts in the
league. He'll make his mistakes ... and we'll have to be patient, but I think his long-term contribution to the program will be significant."
Mike Helsby: "Mike has been a really nice addition to our team. He handles the ball extremely well, and has a scorers mentality. He was among the top scorers in the games against MUN alumni. He is fitting in really well with the guys and seems to be really enjoying being here. He is still adjusting to our offense. It takes awhile for guys to learn the system as there are so many reads within the offence."
Ante Samodol: "Ante is huge addition to our program. At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, he is the biggest guy we have and in some ways our most athletic. He has the skills of a guard, but can be dominant in the post. His best attribute is his passing as he sees the floor really well. He adds a dimension to our game that we didn't
have before."
Head coach: Peter Benoite
Assist. coaches: Martin Cull, Evan Constantine
Last season's record: 3-17, missed playoffs
Players (*red shirt)
Michael Quigley, forward, Corner Brook
Ryan McCluskey, guard, Riverview, N.B.
Manny Wilby, guard, Fredericton, N.B.
Steven Earles, centre, St. John's
Matthew Cleary, guard, St. John's
Justin Penney, guard, St. Catherines
Robbie Habib, wing, Lower Sackville, N.S.
Mark Woodland, guard, St. John's
Justin Grainger, wing, St. John's
James Saxby, guard, Mahone Bay, N.S.
Mike Helsby, wing, Waterloo, Ont.
Jason Shepherd, wing, Black Rock, N.S.
Ante Samodol, centre, Gelsenkirchen, Germ.
Alex Harding, centre, Bridgewater, N.S.
Jordan Constantine, forward, Dunville, NL
*Sean Murphy, guard, St. John's
*Brad Bambrick, St. John's
Sat., Nov. 7 Acadia vs Memorial
Sun., Nov. 8, Acadia vs Memorial
Nov. 21, Saint Mary's vs Memorial
Nov. 22, Saint Mary's vs Memorial
Jan. 9, St. Francis vs Memorial
Jan. 10, St. Francis vs Memorial
Jan. 23, Dalhousie at Memorial
Jan. 24, Dalhousie Memorial
Feb. 13, UNB vs Memorial
Feb. 14, UNB vs Memorial

Organizations: Sea-Hawks, Field House, Dalhousie Tigers

Geographic location: Acadia, St. John's, Ontario Saint Mary Corner Brook Fredericton Sackville Mahone Bay Black Rock Gelsenkirchen

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