Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Talented Axemen look to return to Nationals

After last season's strong finish and a roster filled with high-level talent, expectations were very high for Acadia Axemen to push for and remain in the CIS Top 10 this season.  While Axemen certainly do have quality players from the one through the five, this season's roster is filled with new players, with only now two returnees from last season's rotation.  Sprinkle a few injuries, not having star 6'10" Owen Klassen for two weeks (he was one of Canada's top players at the Pan-Am Games in October in Mexico) plus only getting starting freshman point guard Sean Stoqua in early November after the two-sport athlete completed his time on the Axemen football team and coach Steve Baur and staff had their challenges in having their full team available to be moulded into a cohesive unit.

This past week's effort at the Rod Shoveller Memorial tournament was extremely helpful in getting the group into the roles originally forecast and Baur is now satisfied that he has a very strong nine man rotation to compete with the elite teams in the AUS in the second half.  Acadia is deep at the guard/wing spots and Baur is more than comfortable handing the point guard reigns over to Stoqua (22.3 mpg, 12.3 ppg including 25 pts. 7-12 3's vs. UPEI), a multi-skilled, high IQ point guard who also has range from the perimeter.  Son of former two-sport athlete Pat Stoqua (Carleton football/basketball and CFL Ottawa Rough Riders wide receiver), the younger Stoqua is one of the more important recruits in Baur's time in Wolfville.  Stoqua missed all of training camp and part of the pre-season while playing cornerback on the Axemen football team, which had great run all the way to the Uteck Bowl in Moncton (National semi-final).  Stoqua returned to Wolfville immediately after that game and played 12 minutes the very next day against UNB in his Acadia basketball debut.  Expect him to start at the point for the rest of the season.

But make no mistake, the star of this group remains Klassen (32.6 mpg, 16.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg), now in his third season, who has taken the next step toward what should eventually be an All-Canadian-type career.  The athletic, offensively-gifted forward came back much more focused with much more confidence after his time with Canada's teams at the World University Games and Pan-Am Games.  Most importantly, as Baur states, Klassen "brought back from his experience what it takes to prepare and win"; that is, the leadership skills that ultimately Acadia needs from their top player.  Klassen injured his elbow against UPEI in the first round of the Shoveller but came back against uOttawa to have a big game and will be ready for the start of the second half.

Baur has surrounded his young point guard Stoqua with tremendous athletic talent on the wings, beginning with 6'3" Jonathan Tull, originally from OFSAA champion Pickering Trojans who accepted an NCAA D1 scholarship to Central Connecticut State before transfering back to Canada and sitting out last season.  The early part of this season was a period of adjustment for Tull as it has taken him time to get his timing and rhythm back after two seasons of not playing competitively, but at the Shoveller, fans got a taste of the slashing, explosive nature of Tull's offensive potential.  Tull also has the potential to be a lock-down defender as he acclimates himself to CIS basketball and is a great complement to fellow wing 6'4" veteran Anthony Sears.  An early season foot injury slowed the start of Sears' third season in Wolfville.  When right, Sears has range beyond the three point line, can play both guard spots and is just getting his timing back after spending virtually the entire pre-season on crutches while healing what doctors are calling dancer's sprain, which severely pressures muscles directly on the weight bearing spot of the foot.  A healthy Sears is a key piece to Acadia's scoring and backcourt depth.  6'3" Markham native Thomas Filgiano (21.4 mpg, 3.8 ppg), a starter as a freshman last season is more than capable backup and spot starter allowing little if any drop off at either guard spot when Baur goes deeper into his bench.

Another transfer who also brings a "competitive edge" according to Baur is 6'3" third-year wing/forward Anthony Ashe (21.6 mpg, 7.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg) who is somewhat playing out of position at the 4 spot presently but with his long-range stoke, helping make it tough to defend Klassen in the post as part of Acadia 4 out / 1 in sets.  Baur describes Ashe as a "great competitor who is tough and knows the game coming in from a top program like Carleton".  Even though Ashe has been in a bit of a shooting slump recently, he brings a glue-type presence on the floor.

Acadia added one of the better pure athletes in the CIS to the lineup with the arrival of 6'3" FR Tyler Scott  (15.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 24.0 mpg) wing from Halifax.  Scott already has contributed 23 points in his AUS debut vs. Dal in a three point win (four-point game) and also had a solid vs. Saskatchewan in the pre-season.  The high-potential wing is learning to play without the ball like much freshmen but is a "smooth, gliding athlete" as Baur puts it and a big energy spark off the bench.  As good an athlete as Scott is, 6'6" freshman Bradley States (14.0 mpg, 6.5 ppg), somewhat-overlooked freshman recruit from northern New Brunswick (Bathurst) has already been tagged with the "spectacular athlete" label who eventually should be Acadia's starting 4 man.  Already the author of several highlight reel dunks, States' freakish athleticism is even more productive defensively where he leads team in deflections.  States will get top-of-the-rotation minutes as he matures physically and gets more comfortable with the offense.

Acadia's roster was reduced by two recently as 6'6" Justin Boutilier, on the verge of becoming an AUS all-star before multiple knee surgeries curtailed what was a very promising career.  Boutilier remains with the program.  One of last season's surprises 6'4" Alex McLaughlin, who played alot and was a big part of Axemen's success, also left the team and on good terms; as Baur puts it "Alex is great kid who knows the game very well - enough to probably be a great coach one day - but it was very tough for him to go back to the role that was originally designed for him."

As the Axemen get more comfortable in their roles and get reps with their entire rotation together, expect them to be a Top 4 team in the AUS.  One element of their game that needs to improve is the number of fouls Acadia commits:  Axemen are out fouling opponents 111-88 (more than 22 fouls per game on average).  Baur admits that it is "tough to win games if fouling more than opponent" but Acadia showed a big improvement during the Shoveller tournament.

Acadia opens up the second half of the AUS schedule this Thursday night hosting Cape Breton Capers in Wolfville.

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