Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Rookie Coach Francis filling big shoes

It is never easy to replace or follow a legend and in the case of the Alberta Golden Bears, replacing the man who basically put Bears basketball on the map and led Alberta for 26 years going back to his start in 1983 including capturing 3 CIS National championships, Don Horwood, was no trivial task. However, in former Canadian National team star Greg Francis, the Bears get one of the best available young coaches in Canada, someone with prior ties to the University/Edmonton and maybe most importantly someone who is no stranger to the pressures of high expectations.

As a player, Francis was a star at famed Oakwood Collegiate in Toronto, carrying on a decades-long winning tradition at that program by leading the Barons to an Ontario championship. Francis then culminated a four year career at NCAA Division 1 Fairfield with a historic 30+ point game against North Carolina Tar Heels in the first round of the NCAA tournament in his graduating year. Later, Francis starred on the Canadian National men's team and for several seasons in Europe. As a coach, Francis spent the past two seasons as head man at Canada's NEDA program at McMaster and this summer led Canada at the FIBA U19 World Championships in New Zealand. His ties to Edmonton and the University stem from his mentor growing up in Toronto: former Golden Bear Willie Delas (Toronto Humberside), who is believed to be the last Torontonian to play for Alberta (early 80's, pre-Horwood era when Brian Heaney was Head Coach) and Delas has already spoke glowingly about his alma mater, making the transition for Francis even more comfortable.

For Francis first season at the helm, the Bears return 5 players from last season's Canada West Mountain Division finalist and the remainder of the roster is dotted with high-potential athletes that Francis was able to attract to Alberta since being named Head Coach this past February.

Given the value of a solid, veteran point guard, especially on a young, transitioning team, the return of 5'11" Scott Leigh, in his third year with the Bears after spending his first post-secondary season in the B.C. colleges league, is key. Leigh is more of a natural 2 who can shoot it but has developed into a nice lead guard and expect him to have the ball in his hands alot early in the season especially. Another key returnee is 6'5" Harvey Bradford, tough as nails as a 3/4 who became effective as a high/low post under Horwood after playing wing in high school and is expected to fit into the rotation.

Three more from Coach Horwood's final team should also work their way into meaningful minutes starting with 6'3" second year Sahr Saffa, a slasher/scorer who will play the wing. 6'2" Matthew Cardozza, an undersized but extremely athletic 3/4 with big ups who can defend and has already fashioned an elite track career will be looked upon to guard top wings, also returns. In a late development, 6'9" Jeff Stork, a fifth-year center again in the traditional Bear post mould, will re-join the roster and add depth at the five spot.

Francis was able to bring in several Alberta high school stars in his first-ever class, starting with prized recruit 6'7" Jordan Baker, a very versatile skill-packed guard/forward from Edmonton Harry Ainlay and Canada's U19 team, who should be impactful from the beginning. Baker can play multiple positions from point to post and can be best described as a point forward (much like Carleton used All-Canadian Aaron Doornekamp during his career) making key decisions and knocking shots down from the perimeter. Baker is still young and continues to mature physically and even grow length-wise. He also comes from strong basketball pedigree as both parents were All-Canadians.

Francis scored a major coup over provincial rivals Lethbridge Pronghorns among others in securing the services of 6'5" swingman Todd Bergen-Henengouwen from Picture Butte, AB, who was part of last summer's Alberta Provincial team championship team. Bergen-Henenegouwen is a strong, tough kid who has primarily played the 4 spot however Francis feels he has the skills to move him to the wing. Finally in 6'2" guard Ken Otieno (Lethbridge, AB/Sir Winston Churchill), Bears obtain another young, emerging athletic talent. The athletic Otieno, originally from Kenya, has big upside as a wing/guard.

Another prized high school recruit comes in 6'11" Rob Dewar, from Guelph, ON who spent last season with Francis at NEDA. Complementing returning posts Bradford and Stork, Dewar is more of a FIBA-type big man with excellent perimeter skills and depth on his jumper. Not a typical banging hi/low post player currently, Dewar has a lean physic and as he gets stronger should augment his perimeter game. Bears will look to incorporate his special skill set almost immediately. Complementing Dewar perfectly is 6'9" Nikola Manojlovic (Hamilton, ON/Orchard Park), a 235 lbs. big bodied banger with significant raw potential destined to develop into a solid, more traditional CIS post player at the 5 spot.

To help bridge the roster between the stable of young recruits directly out of high school and the returning upper classmen vets, Francis dipped into the Alberta college ranks for three more newcomers, led by 6'7" Jamaal Bucknor, a transfer from Concordia College (12.9 ppg in '08-'09) where he played the last 2 seasons and brother of Canadian National team star Jermaine Bucknor. Jamaal, in contrast to his brother, is more of a physical four man who works in and around the paint. 6'1" Khas Tokar (transfer/Grand Prairie College) will bring depth to the backcourt as a combo guard. Tokar was a big time scorer in the Alberta college league, leading the province in scoring at 21.5 ppg. In 6'2" Jordan Hone, the Bears get another very good combo guard from Mount Royal College, where he averaged 11.8 ppg in 2008-09 and was named MVP at CCAA nationals last season. Another Concordia College guard, 6'2" Brett Kallio, also a member of last summer's Alberta provincial team, was expected to join the Golden Bears this season but will return to Concordia for his second year there and will work on his point guard skills with the expectation of joining the Bears next season.

With at least 7 new faces on the roster and no real stars returning, Francis' first season at Alberta will require finding roles for everyone and a keener sense of how his rotation will evolve. Alberta under Horwood was traditionally a high/low offensive team with solid posts and Francis would like to also play more up tempo when possible. There is young and experienced talent in place to play both ways as situations dictate. Regardless, it appears that Francis has already started putting together a foundation of a solid winning program.

Alberta has put together a competitive non-conference schedule highlighted by a Thanksgiving weekend trip to Francis' former stomping grounds of Southern Ontario when Alberta will take on the Varsity Blues in Toronto (Friday), McMaster on the Saturday night and Ryerson back in Toronto on Sunday afternoon. Later, Alberta will participate in the Guy Vetrie tournament at UVic during which they will meet defending national champions Carleton Ravens among others. Another pre-season highlight is Alberta's trip to Spokane, WA to meet NCAA Division 1 Gonzaga on Nov. 2nd, kicking off the Bulldogs exhibition season.

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