Pumped up kicks
With a pair of wins against the University of Calgary Dinos last weekend, the future for the Regina Cougars men’s basketball team looks promising.
The Cougars earned a come-from-behind 94-83 win on Nov. 18 and a nail-biting double overtime 93-91 victory the next night. According to head coach James Hillis, both games were played with similar styles.
“[It was a] great second half. The first half was OK for periods of time, and then we got tentative again. Overall we were able to take a win,” he said. “Calgary is a good team. [They’re] a little bit nicked up, so it was definitely an opportunity for us to get a win.”
Calgary was one of the numerous highly touted teams that the Cougars have been forced to battle early this season.
“We have had a very difficult start to our regular season,” a frustrated Hillis said, noting the team has played the No. 3 Saskatchewan Huskies, No. 4 UBC Thunderbirds and No. 7 Victoria Vikes. “We aspire to be there, but we are young right now and we have had some forced youth with Darious [Mole] blowing his knee out.”
With an injury to Mole, guard Brendan Hebert has been looked upon to take a bigger role this season.
“Losing [Mole], Hebert is getting all of the time that he can eat, because right now if he could I would rather that he played 40 minutes,” Hillis said. “We are much smoother when he is on the floor, but he is growing into it and sometimes that’s how guys learn; they are forced into a situation where they aren’t 100 per cent comfortable to be in, but that’s the situation their in.”
Regina does not have any fifth-year players on the team this year, something that the coach admitted puts them at an automatic disadvantage.
“Yeah, for sure it does, but that is just the graduation cycle,” Hillis said. “As a coach, if you are counting a roster of 15 – in a perfect world – it [takes] three fifth-year guys and three first-year guys to keep the cycle going, but it just doesn’t work that way. You just take them when they come. There [are] a hundred things going on, so you try and manage that.”
While they may not have any fifth-year guys on this year’s squad, Hillis believes there is an upside to the Cougars’ youth.
“The upside is that we will have this group for another year. and if we can add some depth and some pieces we will try and grow into that,” he said. “Fifth-year guys are a steady influence. They are guys that just don’t get rattled and don’t have those awkward moments like we had in the first half.”
With so much youth on the roster, one could easily chalk this year up as “rebuilding” for the Cougars, but the head coach has other ideas.
“Well, number one was really getting back in the win column,” said Hillis with a laugh. “I think that really, everyone wants to win a national championship, so you are always talking about that. If you are playing in the league that is ultimately your goal.”
Before they get a national ring, the Cougars have a streak going that they look to continue this year.
“We have made the playoffs now for 17 years in a row, so there is a little bit of pride riding there that we would like to continue to do that,” Hillis said. “The playoff structure has changed; its Victoria to Winnipeg, with only top eight now, whereas before with the divisions and all that you were getting top 12 out of 16.”
Even though making the playoffs has become more difficult, Hillis plans to take things as they come.
“So lets make the playoffs and then once were there, I think its really a matter of head[ing] out to Boston Pizza and have[ing] a meeting. We’ll talk, ‘OK, here’s where we are now, lets evaluate, lets set some goals going through this process,” said Hillis, who is in his 18th season with the Cougars. “We are really in a dogfight in this division to get into the top four; we just really need to attack one [game] at a time and get [into the] playoffs first. I really think that if this team can make the playoffs, A. we will have more experience behind us that could be dangerous and B. provide th[e] youth with exposure as they go forward.”
The Cougars won’t be in action at home until the new year; before that, they must battle through a six-game road streak and the holidays.