T-Birds look to get back on winning track

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UBC Thunderbirds

By Lee Dorner (Sports Information Assistant)

November 21, 2013, VANCOUVER (ISN) – Men’s basketball looking to halt a three-game losing streak, the UBC Thunderbirds will be back on home court this weekend to host a pair of Prairie Division opponents occupying opposite ends of the standings, as the 6-0 Winnipeg Wesmen and 1-5 Manitoba Bisons come to town.

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At halftime of Friday’s game, the UBC Thunderbirds varsity athletics program will honour Howard Tsumura, the university and high school sports reporter for The Province.

The Saturday game is part of the VPS Family Day and the UBC “Take a Break” Festival activities scheduled for Nov. 23. UBC students will receive free admission to all the Thunderbirds games being played that day (two basketball and two volleyball).

The ‘Birds are coming off a very tough week in Kamloops, in which they were swept for the first time ever in conference action by the Thompson Rivers WolfPack. The story continues to be the team’s struggles to get in sync, particularly on offence, with the injury bug chewing away at the roster. UBC’s field goal percentage of .369 ranks third-last in the conference, and from three-point range they rank dead last at .211.

This is uncharted territory for a program that has ranked top-three in Canada West field goal percentage every season since 2007-08. The problem might work itself out gradually as the team returns to health, and there is still a long way to go in the conference season, but the ‘Birds have dug themselves into an early hole at 2-4, already four games behind division-leading Victoria.

Tonner Jackson leads the team with 13.5 points per game on .410 shooting, adding 6.8 rebounds as well. His partner in the paint, David Wagner, scores 12.7 per game on .469 shooting, with a team-leading average of 8.5 rebounds per game. But neither of those shooting percentages are overly-impressive for scorers playing close to the basket, and when it comes to perimeter offence, the ‘Birds just haven’t been efficient enough to make opponents respect their shooters. Knocking down a few more threes might help open up some space in the post for Wagner and Jackson.

But even that is easier said than done without a healthy point guard to keep the ball moving around the outside, or slash to the basket and kick it out. Isaiah Solomon still hasn’t played this year, and Jordan Jensen-Whyte came off the bench last week due to an ankle injury, so keeping the offence moving quickly has been a real chore for UBC, which makes open three-point shots hard to come by.

This makes the rebounding and turnover battles especially important for the ‘Birds, who need those extra possessions and transition opportunities to keep up offensively. Rebounding has remained fairly a successful endeavor, with a +7.8 average margin on the glass, and it should stay that way this weekend with two of the conference’s weaker rebounding teams coming to town.

But turnovers have been a real sore spot for the ‘Birds, who rank fourth-last with a -3.17 margin. And with conference-leading Winnipeg (+7.00) kicking off this week’s action, the T-Birds could see those extra possessions afforded to them by the rebounding effort evaporate if they can’t keep control of the ball.

Winnipeg’s senior point guard Andrew Cunningham has a lot to do with that turnover success, leading the league with over seven assists per game, and ranking second in assist-to-turnover ratio. His main target has been Canada West leading scorer Steven Wesley, who is netting 21.8 points on .543 shooting.

The next highest Wesmen scorer averages just over 10 points per game, so stopping the Cunningham-to-Wesley combination will go a long way in slowing down the Winnipeg attack this week. Look for the T-Birds to defend aggressively and put the Wesmen on the free-throw line if necessary, as they shoot a league-worst .589 mark from the stripe.

The Bisons, by contrast, run a much more balanced attack, with four players sharing approximately equal loads in terms of field goal attempts. Like UBC, they have struggled with their offensive efficiency, but unlike UBC, the defence and rebounding have also lagged well behind league-average level, so the opportunities should be there for the T-Birds to clean the glass and get some high-percentage shot opportunities as they look to turn their season around.

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