One of the more highly-touted teams in recent memory with a roster full of top talent, the Spartans flashed some of their promise in this past Friday's first CW regular season game at Lethbridge, dominating the first quarter to jump out to a 28 point lead before cruising. Things were a bit tighter Saturday until about mid-way through the third quarter against a Horns team that made the playoffs last season (but lost their top player in Jeff Price) but this year's high ranking appears to be more justified given last season's titanic disappointment of not making the playoffs.
Coach Scott Allen has some redshirts who might start in other programs however expect TWU to play nine guys when it really matters, starting this weekend with a pair of home games in Langley against UBC Thunderbirds. While positions 3 through 5 offer as strong a foundation as any in the CIS, Spartans addressed a very large issue with 5'11" Tristan Smith, who sat out last season after transfering from Fraser Valley. The California native is a strong but streaky perimeter shooter and can shoulder a high-minutes (35+ per game) load if required. He sees the floor well and distributes but can take chances with his decisions. Smith's ability to stay out of foul trouble and remain healthy will be the underlying key to TWU's season. 6'3" freshman Eli Mara is the main backup and like virtually all first-year guys, consistency will be an issue but Mara is a big guard who gives Allen some alternatives.
Spartans basically have three starters on the wings although Allen will likely start only two in any one game beginning with 6'6" Tyrell Mara, now in his second season with the Spartans after transfering from Portland State (NCAA D1). Mara is a glue-type player who can defend, rebound and lead and is also an able scorer out beyond the three point line. One of the more highly-touted arrivals in the CIS this season is 6'8" Kyle Coston, an American and Portland State teammate of Mara's who was a regular starter with the Vikings two seasons ago before transfering and sitting out last season. Coston has traditional three man skills including the ability to knock down 3's. 6'4" Calvin Westbrook, a D2 transfer who started regularly last season is another in a fine array of wing talent at the Spartans disposal.
Up front, the Spartans return '08-'09 Moser Award winner 6'6" Jacob Doerksen who has already had a well-honoured CIS career, beginning with his national freshman-of-the-year award while with UVic Vikes. Doerksen has tremendous paint-area skills and a nose for the ball around the rim as a scorer and rebounder. Spartans will likely play through Doerksen and his ability to get the ball and draw double teams should determine how easily other guys get open looks and ultimately the determining factor when Spartans are right. 6'7" Tonner Jackson offers a well-regarded skill set off the bench at the 4 spot.
At the five spot, the Spartans look primarily for defense, rebounding and a complementary player who doesn't necessarily have to look for his and with 6'8" Lance Verhoeff and 6'8" Clint Wickham (6'8"), Spartans get a pair of bigs who fit that mould and are interchangeable at that spot. The Spartans can move Doerksen over to the 4 spot when wanting to play with Smith, Westbrook, T. Mara and Coston on the floor in a more perimeter-oriented lineup.
Regardless, this 9-strong lineup presents matchup problems and with their athleticism, size and energy are very difficult to keep off the offensive glass. Keeping Smith at the point healthy and out of foul trouble will be important although 6'0" Dan Hoerner is also back and experienced and Eli Mara is a very promising player. Ensuring there are enough shots to go around and that this group is committed to stopping teams together are other challenges coach Allen faces. However, it would be very surprising not to see this team remain in the CIS Top 5 all season and compete for a CW championship.
This weekend's pair of home games against UBC Thunderbirds provides the ultimate early season litmus test.