Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Patience Pays off for Campbell, Mustangs

It was about midway through last season when Brad Campbell's Western Mustangs finally began to legitimately turn the promise that solid recruiting classes and player continuity brought on the way to the reality of winning big games and championships. After missing the playoffs in their first two seasons in London, the same young core group of 6'1" point guard Matt Curtis, 6'6" forward Brad Smith, 6'2" Jason Milliquet and 6'5" Andrew Wedemire have led Western's revival back to a Top 10 team. Campbell selectively augmented this foundation by adding top recruits and three NCAA Division 1 transfers, and the result is a solid nine man rotation that give the Mustangs as good a chance as any team to win the Nationals.

Campbell, who played his high school basketball in Ottawa and was coached by none other than Carleton mentor Dave Smart, was a tremendous shooter in his day at Western in the early 90's however, in part due to some serious knee injuries, he rarely showed up on OUA all-defensive team ballots. Still, Campbell knows the value of defending and rebounding and he points to his team's defense as the key to their revival. "Our defense is our foundation", says Campbell. In OUA West Defensive POY 6'3" Alex Brzozowicz (Chicago), Campbell has found a stopper who Campbell claims "made himself into an above average defender with hard work and attention to detail." Brzozowicz, who transfered to Western last season after a two-year stint as a walk-on at the University of Michigan, has developed an uncanny ability to "make up ground in a hurry", as Campbell puts it, which allows him to keep his check under control consistently. Brzozowicz, a lefty, is also probably Western's most explosive three point shooter and maybe the team's most toughest competitor.

After reaching last season's CIS Final Four, Campbell feels Western this season added the final piece of the national championship puzzle with 6'6" Keenan Jeppesen (Hamilton, ON), an Ivy League transfer, who is an athletic, versatile "point forward" who can lead the break, run the show when necessary and generally present opponents with big matchup issues including inside in the post. Jeppesen is also a strong defender and maybe his most underrated attribute is his ability to get on the glass, especially at the defensive end. Very good off the dribble, when Keenan is making his mid-range and 3 point shots he is very difficult to guard.

6'1" fifth-year point guard Curtis (Hamilton, ON), who this season supplanted Brock's graduated Brad Rootes, the perennial leader, atop the OUA West assists board, continues his leadership role, distributing on the break and running the offense. Although Curtis has not shot the ball as well as he did last season when he was very consistent especially from downtown, Campbell raves about the "intangibles Matt brings to the floor". Ordinarily Western's leader in minutes played, the rock is usually in Matt's hands and his decision making has continued to improve throughout his career. Controling Curtis's ability to get to where he wants to on the floor is a key to stopping the 'Stangs. 6'7" lefty Bradley Smith (Barrie St. Joseph's), a former OUA West Rookie-of-the-Year, can flat out score when he gets it going - witness his performance in the first round at last season's Nationals when Smith erupted for 17 first quarter points in the quarter-final win against St. Mary's. Smith is a streaky offensive player who can post up, get to the rim and shoot it beyond the 3 point line but has had an inconsistent career as a defender in Western's system which explains why his minutes can be reduced depending upon matchups.

Up front 6'6" sophomore Garrett Olexiuk (Burlington, ON), one of the more highly touted recruits Western has landed in recent years, has added pounds and muscle to his long lanky frame and more importantly looks much more assertive and confident offensively since his freshman season. As a young starter, Olexiuk, along with fellow sophomore starting-point-guard-to-be Ryan Barbeau represent the future foundation of the Mustangs. Olexiuk is at his best in and around the paint and the strength he has gained since his freshman year has turned him into a force on the glass and right now as a complementary offensive player with fine finishing skills. Expect Olexiuk to be Western's paint area offensive presence through the remainder of his career. Barbeau, quickly gaining confidence as a floor leader, had a tremendous National tournament last year and came back with more range on his jumper. Pound-for-pound maybe the Mustangs strongest man in the weight room, Barbeau allows Campbell to spell Curtis without losing much if anything on the floor.

6'10" Colin Laforme (Hamilton, ON) brings a defensive, rebounding presence and athleticism inside for Western. A touted transfer from NCAA Division 1 Youngstown State, Laforme's offense has yet to catch up to his presence on the defensive end. 6'5" Wedemire (Sarnia, ON), who has suffered through an injury plagued career most noteably with his knees, is "as healthy as he's ever been" according to Campbell and Wedemire has proven to be instant offense off the bench. A tremendous scorer who had lights out athleticism before the string of injuries, Wedemire can ignite Western's offense off the bench. A somewhat-forgotten member of last year's successful team is 6'2" fifth-year shooting guard Milliquet. Arguably the Mustangs MVP down the stretch last season when he was lights out from downtown, hitting several key shots in big games, Milliquet decided to give football a try this season, a sport which he focused on exclusively from April of last year to the end of the football season in November. Many times the best shooters are at their best when they are in rhythm and focused, a place where Milliquet is just now getting back to after his football hiatus.

The Mustangs have already defeated their first round opponents the Ottawa Gee-Gees, using a third quarter run to pull away for a 20 point victory in November at Alumni Hall in London. Campbell remembers that his group had a strong night defending however "the Gee-Gees missed several open looks that they probably make ordinarily" so he expects a very tight game where every possession counts and a game in the 70's. The Western/Ottawa game is the first of two in the evening session, preceeding the Carleton/X night cap.

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