Thursday, 24 September 2009

Veteran Cougars poised to compete for CW Honours

On the verge of making the Canada West Final Four last season after a first-game victory in the Great Plains division championship, Regina Cougars couldn't get over the hump in Brandon against the Bobcats but the group is much stronger for the experience. And experience is something the Cougars roster is filled with, as their top six rotation players are all in their fourth or fifth year. Combine that with the maturation of their younger players, the return of a redshirt and two new American recruits ready to provide more depth than was available last season and it is very reasonable to expect James Hillis' veteran group at a minimum can lock in on one of the eight Canada West playoff positions in the revamped conference.

Regina had four veterans last season who each averaged ~30 or more minutes per game and the go-to guy among them is 6'5" Jamal Williams, the four man, through whom much of the offense runs. Williams is very unselfish and loves to flash his excellent decision-making and passing skills operating in and around the high post. Williams has been enncouraged to look to score more to set up his playmaking skills even further. 6'2" fifth-year guard Paul Schubach came to Regina as a combo guard before running the point almost exclusively in the past two seasons. Schubach can present matchup problems as a big guard and as Coach Hillis describes "we are simply a better team with him on the floor". Expect Schubach to spend more time at the off guard spot with the arrival of 6'0" point guard Darius Mole (Scottsdale, AZ) - more on him later. Schubach is also a tremendous student, holding a 90%+ average in the school of Engineering and has been an Academic All-Canadian in each year of University.

The ability of Schubach and Mole to penetrate and draw help will again allow Cougars' top shooter, 6'0" Jeff Lukomski, to play off the point guard and display his deep shooting range. Lukomski, who has already shot his team into several huge comebacks over his career, is the classic streak shooter who can go 7 for 9 one night and then 1 for 9 the next but, when right, can carry a team with his bombs from downtown.

Previously underrated, Regina got a breakout season in 2008-09 from 6'7" fourth-year forward Kris Heshka, a blue collar, grinding big man who defends opponents bigs, rebounds at both ends and finishes his putbacks. Heshka finally got his props last season after being named a Canada West second-team all-star. As part of his breakout season, Heshka averaged 16.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in conference play and then bumped up the averages in the playoffs to 19.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, providing Cougars with a solid option inside.

Addressing the needs for athleticism and spreading minutes across more players, Hillis was able to attract a pair of rotation-ready recruits, beginning with Mole, a multi-sport athlete at Phoenix (AZ) St. Mary's Catholic where he was part of a 5A-I state championship basketball team in 2007-08 while also quarterbacking the football team and doing the long jump. Mole appears to be ready for big minutes at the point for Regina, complementing Schubach. Adding much-needed depth at the four spot is another American import, 6'6" Danny LeBeck, originally from Colorado, who has spent the past two seasons at U.S. Junior Colleges (Scottsdale CC last season and Casper (Wyoming) CC in 2007-08). Much like incumbent starter Williams, LeBeck, who fought back injuries last season, is known an adept passer and also ready to contribute immediately.

Regina further added to their depth with the news that 6'8" Paul Gareau is back and ready to go after a redshirt year last season. In Gareau, Cougars get back a very versatile defender and complementary scorer. He can guard 3's on the perimeter and also score inside as a "4". He has been the classic sixth man throughout his career and now could be in the picture for a starting role. Also returning is 6'2" Joran McFarlen, a fourth-year swingman who may be Regina's best athlete and one of their strongest defenders. McFarlen has had several very good games in big spots over his career. His ability to look to score with more confidence and be more consistent from game to game will determine his minutes.

Also in the mix off the bench at the guard spot is 6'1" Sterling Nostedt who showed flashes of poise with his decision making as a freshman last season. Nostedt has range from the perimeter and should push for more time as he physically matures. Another big guard 6'4" Neil Olukoya, a third-year transfer from Medicine Hat College where he averaged about 10 ppg, will add athleticism to this group and should push for a rotation spot from Day One. 6'3" Jared Janotta is a wing who is also pushing for a spot on the Cougar football team as a slotback. 6'5" Marek Downarowicz, a fourth-year forward who originally transfered from Camosen College is an energy guy who gets on the offensive glass, is strong and can hit open 3's.

Hillis has certainly addressed one of the team's biggest needs (depth) and the Cougars are much more athletic which allows Hillis to be more flexible with game tempo. Depending upon the opponent and situation, Cougars should be able to both run, press and push the pace or fall into quarter-court sets. This same group, less three or four new faces who should help, was within a game of reaching the Canada West Final Four last season. Expectations are high that Regina will be in position to take that next leap to a Nationals contender this season.

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