The Brandon University Bobcats men’s basketball failed to make the playoffs for the third straight year, but the 2011-12 Canada West season was a defining season for the team’s young players.
Bobcats head coach Gil Cheung wanted to change the team’s culture and brought in 10 new players to the Bobcats. It was those players, and some of the returning ones, who created the new culture on the team, based on all the adversity the players had to deal with this season.
STRIKE ONE: The first test for the team came before the season even started when Cheung was forced to leave the Bobcats because of the Brandon University Faculty Association strike, which lasted 45 days. With so many new members of the team, many of whom were new to university and Canada West play, the pressure was on assistant coaches Jeremy Wielenga — a student himself — and Ritchie Jacobson to keep the team focused.
However, they got a lot of help from veteran players like Donovan Gayle and Kyle Vince, both fifth-year players, as well as third-year forward Jordan Reaves and first-year point guard Ilarion Bonhomme, who stepped up to help get the players organized.
Brandon went 2-5 in league play before Cheung returned the bench, but that time without him forged the players into a cohesive unit.
"I thought they did a great job of gelling together on and off the court," Cheung said. "I think they’ve been through a lot. Being their first season here, especially with a 45-day strike and being away from home for the first time and playing in the Canada West conference for the first time, they carried themselves with a lot of character."
<B>RAV-AGING INJURY: The Bobcats closed out the first half of the season with a road win before they ran into more problems in the second-half opener against the Regina Cougars at the BU gym on
Jan. 6. Fourth-year BU guard Emerick Ravier, who was in his first season with Brandon, left that game with a serious knee injury that caused him to miss the rest of the season.
The loss of Ravier was huge. Not only was he the team’s leading scorer (averaging 16.3 points per game), he was also second on the team in rebounds (6.3 per game) and was the only Bobcat to make more than half of his field goal attempts (.533 shooting percentage), creating a real mismatch for opposing teams.
Ravier could post up on smaller players and blow past bigger ones. Without him in the lineup, the Bobcats were forced to completely change their offensive system and they only managed to win one of their next seven games.
"He was a huge loss for us and the next four or five games we tried to adjust and we changed everything we did on the offensive end to make up for such a big piece of our game," Cheung said. "I think after four games, the guys adjusted to that and we made a little run there. Losing Emerick was a big blow, but that’s part of sports."
BUILDING BLOCKS: The Bobcats finished the season with a 7-13 record, but showed some potential for the future. They earned three more wins than the 2010-11 squad and weren’t mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture until the final week of the season.
They also showcased a lot of individual talent. Bonhomme was named Canada West’s rookie of the year and made the Canadian Interuniversity Sport all-rookie team. He finished the season with 12.2 points per game and second in the conference with six assists per game. Meanwhile, first-year Bobcats forward Ali-Mounir Benabdelhak led all Canada West rookies with 13.6 points and 8.1 boards per game.
Cheung confirmed the core of this group will be back and he’s hoping the team can continue to improve and reach the playoffs next season.
"This year we’re very happy with the guys we have and the student-athletes that they’ve become and we’re just going to add two or three new pieces to that," he said. "Besides that, we’re very happy with the young men we have on this team and they’ve done a great job of carrying themselves for Brandon University. … We have good pieces and we’ll continue to get better."