Memorial University Sea-Hawks forward Jason Shepherd drives to the hoop during a 2009-10 game against St. Francis Xavier. Shepherd, one of two fourth-years on Peter Benoite’s squad this year, is expected to be a key player in the team’s quest to get back to the AUS playoffs for the first time since 2006. — Telegram file photo
Memorial University men’s basketball coach Peter Benoite has to admit it, since there’s no way to avoid the obvious.
“It’s a tough way to open up,” Benoite said about his team’s season starters this weekend against defending champion Cape Breton Capers at the Field House.
The Atlantic University Sport (AUS) teams clash 8 o’clock tonight and 1 p.m. Sunday.
Benoite said Cape Breton is a tough team, but he feels his Sea-Hawks charges have improved in some areas.
“I do feel our guard play is much better this year and that’s the area we struggled with them last year.
“The other side of things is that Cape Breton is not playing well right now. They’ve lost a number of games, including losses to Holland College and UNB. Not sure what’s going on there as they have their best players back from last year, but they have lost some leadership through graduating players and they may be working things out to start the season.”
It will take a big improvement from MUN to upset or even stay close to the Capers, who beat the Sea-Hawks by 46 and 36 points in a pair of games last season and are returning all five starters on a team that went 18-2, the opposite of MUN’s record.
Those games were in late January last season and Benoite says playing the Capers earlier this season might be a bit of a break as Cape Breton only gets better as the season goes on.
“I think we match up with them much better on the perimeter, but its inside I’m more worried about,” said Benoite, who is in his third season at the helm of the Sea-Hawks.
“However,” added Benoite, “I’m flipping the coin and wondering how they are going to match up with us as their posts will have to guard Jason Shepherd and Robbie Habib. They will be key for us and will have to be aggressive on the offensive end.”
Benoite said the Sea-Hawks are a more mature lot this year with Shepherd and Mark Woodland both in their fourth year, and a number of players in their third year, including Habib.
“You can’t replace maturity and experience in this league and we are finally getting to the point where we have that.”
Still, Benoite says Memorial has a number of players who need to step up.
It starts with Habib, who was second to Shepherd in team scoring last season with 12.1 ppg.
“He needs to be more aggressive and assertive on the floor,” said Benoite.
The coach said he is expecting Woodland to have a more consistent year.
“He is finally in the shape he needs to be in at this level and has been playing extremely well for us in practice and particularly against Waterloo (in pre-season). I’m expecting a breakout year for him.”
The MUN coach said the addition of Ontario natives Will Bradbury and Justin Alliman at the guard spots, “should really help us.
“I’m expecting Will and Justin to really shore up our perimeter defence and bring an intensity to the game that we’ve been lacking on that end of the floor.
“We also need to have Mike Helsby and Justin Grainger step up this year. Then we will need to get some guys off the bench capable of coming in and chipping in from time to time,” he said.
Realistically, there’s lots to do in every area on the court.
“We have the talent on the perimeter this year, but we will be outsized down low,” said Benoite. “We are catering our defence to adjust for that.
“We will really have to focus on positional play and defense and the critical point will be rebounding the basketball. And will have to limit second chance opportunities to give ourselves chances to win.
“The league is better (overall) this year,” noted Benoite. “Acadia and UNB look like they are playing well and SMU, Dal and St. Francis look strong, so it will not be easy. The toughest thing about our league is there are no easy games.”
The last time Memorial made the playoffs was the 2005-06 season when the team finished fourth with a 9-10 record.