With consecutive CIS Nationals appearances under their belts, Lakehead Thunderwolves are well past the "happy to be there" stage and are properly setting their sites on a mid-March Sunday afternoon championshipgame appearance in Halifax. Raising their first-ever Wilson Cup banner earlier this season was a defining milestone for the program but coach Scott Morrison, who ressurected this program from one of Canada's worst a few seasons ago, knows that getting that first win at the Nationals (and more) now needs to be the overriding objective. Not that Morrison has forgotten how strong the OUA West is: "the West will be unbelievably tough again this season" and how difficult it will be to repeat, especially with a schedule that has the T-Wolves travelling for back-to-backs at Windsor, at Laurier and at Brock this season. But Lakehead has the depth and blend of athleticism, size and strength to be very worthy of their present #3 ranking in the Coaches poll.
At 7-1 with their only loss at home to Carleton by 3 which "probably was the best game we played in first half" according to Morrison - Lakehead had a decent look at a three on the game's final possession - the Wolves remain top contenders, with a rotation of at least 8 that is as good as any in the nation. Offensive balance remains an important element of Lakehead's success with five players averaging 10+ ppg and two others near that figure. Lakehead continues to push the tempo at both ends and also as a group remains one of the best long-range shooting teams in the nation (39% as a team from beyond the arc), even with the loss of sharp-shooter Jamie Searle to graduation.
As with most contending teams, the Wolves are strong and experienced in the backcourt, led by 5'9" defender-extrodinaire Greg Carter (10.0 ppg/4.4 rpg/4.5 apg), Lakehead's 30+ minute per game point guard who wreaks havoc on opposition ball handlers and with maturation has turned into a very good decision maker with the ball offensively. Since the graduation of Searle, Carter has looked to score more but as Morrison notes, "Greg's shot selection has improved since Jamie's graduation". Another athletic guard 6'1" Ben Johnson (12.8 ppg/ 54% 3's) plays off Carter very well at the two spot and fills in at the point when necessary. Completing a very good point/wing triumvarate is 6'2" Venzal Russell (12.1 ppg/4.4 rpg), the hero in Lakehead's dramatic OUA Final Four semi-final victory over Ottawa last March in Hamilton, who had a tremendous pre-season.
Up front, even with his scoring numbers down from where one might think they would be, 6'6" Yoosrie Salhia (7.2 ppg/7.5 rpg) continues to present matchup problems in the low post with his slick array of finishes and 6'5" Ryan Thomson (10.6 ppg/4.9 rpg) stretches defenses from the three point line as a face up four man, but, as he proved in a gut-check effort vs. Laurentian for example, can mix it up inside when required. Depth is important in this spot as Salhia continues to fight the lingering effects of a back injury sustained years ago which has limited his time to 23-25 minutes per game.
Maybe the two most consistent Lakehead contributors in the first half were the first two off-the-bench, 6'2" Joseph Jones (team-leading 13.1 ppg) who is the first wing in and usually is on the floor at the end of games and 6'6" Brendan King (9.8 ppg), who ensures there is little if any fall-off when Salhia needs a break. 6'6" newcomer Adam Johnson (5.9 ppg/3.6 rpg in ~10 mpg), an import from Baltimore, MD, has been impactful as a big 3/4. Among the strongest T-Wolves, Johnson brings a physical presence as he grows into his role.
Morrison's most recent freshman class had a distinct Winnipeg flavour to it as Lakehead brought in arguably the three best graduating seniors from the province of Manitoba in 6'7" Mike Thorne-Finch, 6'0" J.R. Alexander and 6'5" Joey Nitychoruk. Unfortunately, the injury bug has limited progress for Thorne-Finch (concussion sustained in mid-October; has not played or practiced since) and Alexander (out the last 7 weeks with an ankle injury that has been in a cast). Fortunately, Lakehead's depth and talent will allow these future contributors to ease into the lineup.
Lakehead, which to the program's credit has taken on a bit of a "go anywhere to play anyone" posture - witness last season's long trip to Quebec and Atlantic Canada on the eve of their OUA regular season - will spend the holidays in Montreal at the UQAM tournament. Lakehead gets McGill Redmen tomorrow as the tournament kicks off and will also face Bishop's and the host Citadins before resuming their OUA schedule in early January.