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VANCOUVER – The UBC Thunderbirds men’s basketball team will be an experienced crew, as all but two players from last season’s roster are back for the 2014-15 season. The team has held the No. 7 ranking in the first two editions of the CIS Men’s Basketball Top 10.

The squad is looking to rebound from last year’s 11-11 finish in Canada West league play. In the playoffs, UBC took the eventual conference champions from the University of Alberta to the limit but lost a close quarter-final series in three games in Edmonton.

Injuries hit the team hard last year and rarely allowed head coach Kevin Hanson to have a consistent starting five.

“We’re hoping that was a once-in-a-lifetime year in terms of injuries,” said Hanson. “We certainly gave it a good run at Alberta in that last series. Injuries happen to everyone. We’re not using it as an excuse, we’re just using last year to motivate ourselves to get better.

“I certainly looked at myself as a coach in terms of technical things and even practice planning and what we did in terms of systems. It was a real chance to reflect and do an overhaul of my own mindset and my coaching so all in all, it was pretty good coaching development for me to have that experience to go through what we did last year. We’ve worked real hard in the offseason and we finally have to chance to taste CIS competition again.”

The player who had the longest wait is Conor Morgan. Because of injury, the Victoria native didn’t see any floor time with UBC during the regular season or playoffs last season. This year, he’s projected to be one of the leading lights for the Thunderbirds this year.

“He had a chance to sit there and analyze every practice and every game, getting looks into where he thought he would be fitting in and he just got the hunger back,” said Hanson. “He worked relentlessly over the course of the year to put on body mass and worked on his game. Although he is young in age, he’s a veteran player. What he’s going to bring to the table for us this year is going to be vital to our success.”

A 6-foot-9 guard/forward, Morgan has been an imposing presence on the court for the blue and gold. The graduate of Mt. Douglas Secondary School has averaged 19 points and six rebounds a game in seven pre-season appearances against university competition.

Hanson explains why Morgan is such an impact player.

“He is a tough match-up,” said the man who’s entering his 15th season as the bench boss of the ‘Birds.  “His height and length make him tough to guard. Put a perimeter guy on him, he goes inside, put a post player on him, he goes outside, plus he also gets points in transition. Conor is very capable of having some big nights and if he can be a leader for us on the defensive end of the court. He will have a great season.”

Around Morgan is a group of players who bring a wide range of experience to the table, four of which are entering their final year of eligibility in the CIS.

“Confidence is a big factor,” said Hanson of the senior players. “There is a willingness to compete and compete hard in practice; the motivation is there as is a sense of urgency for those fifth-year guys.

Andrew McGuinness is one of those guys. He’s getting that opportunity now and he’s playing his best basketball. They know there’s no tomorrow. We have four of those guys who are graduating this year and they’re playing really well right now.”

In addition to McGuinness, Tonner Jackson, Brylle Kamen and Tommy Nixon will all suit up for UBC for the final time this year.

Jackson, Kamen and Nixon are all part of an experienced frontcourt group.

Nixon, a Vancouver native, led the team in scoring during the 2013-14 campaign, averaging 14 points per outing. The Kitsilano Secondary graduate also had the most trips to the foul line with 182. He averaged 6.1 rebounds a game, which was second to only Kamen (6.3). Kamen was fifth on the roster with 7.7 points a game.

In his first season with UBC after transferring from Trinity Western University, Jackson was second on the roster in scoring, averaging 11.6 points over 23 games. However, injuries kept him from seeing the floor during the postseason. Fourth-year forward David Wagner is another veteran expected to boost the offence, as he averaged just over 11 points a game last year, which was highlighted by a 29-point performance on Nov. 22, 2013 against the University of Winnipeg.

Luka Zaharijevic, a 6-7 forward, has improved over the offseason and will push for more playing time in his second year. He’ll be joined by intriguing new recruit Daniel Sutcliffe, an athletic 6-9 player out of Melbourne, Australia. Hanson describes Sutcliffe as a player who aggressively attacks the rim who is also proficient in blocking shots. Sutcliffe is a relative newcomer to basketball, having been a state champion jumper and sprinter previously.

Jordan Jensen-Whyte takes over as the team’s point guard from Isaiah Solomon, who is out for the year because of injury. The two players shared the point guard duties two years ago as rookies and helped UBC win the Canada West championship. Jensen-Whyte averaged seven points a game last year and was third on the team with 42 assists in 21 Canada West games.

Andrew McGuinness was the team’s leader in three-point field goals during the 2013-14 campaign, his first with the T-Birds after transferring from the University of Calgary two years before.

Kedar Wright was named to the Canada West’s All-Rookie Team in 2013-14 and looks to make an even bigger impact this season. The Toronto native was sixth on the team in scoring (8.3 ppg) but stepped up during the playoffs to put up 56 points in the playoffs against Alberta. He was the top scorer for the T-Birds in two of the three postseason outings.

The newest UBC guard is Stefanos Fasianos, who is originally from Greece and played in that country’s youth national team system for several years. He moved to the United States and played high school basketball last year at Deerfield High in Illinois, where he was the team’s best three-point shooter and third-leading scorer and rebounder.

Five players will redshirt this season: Vacouver native Elijah Campbell-Axson, Bret Macdonald of Port Coquitlam, B.C., Mindy Minhas, the B.C. High School ‘AAAA’ Championship MVP from Vancouver, Will Ondrik of Vernon, B.C., Harpreet Randhawa of Williams Lake, B.C., and Vancouver’s Matt Visser.

This year, T-Birds’ fans will see more of the program’s traditional opponents as a new two-division setup is in place for the Canada West. UBC is now in the 11-school Pioneers Division, alongside squads such as the universities of Victoria, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The other grouping, the Explorers Division, features teams such as Mt. Royal University and newcomer MacEwan University. Teams will not meet those from the other division until the playoffs.

“I’m excited about getting back on the court and starting a new season,” said Hanson. “Anytime we lose a basketball game, I get really hungry as a coach to get out there and try to correct things the next week. It’s part of the job and part of the fun behind this is the highs and the lows. You want to make sure those lows don’t last and get back on track. Basketball is a game of runs and so is coaching. It’s time to start a new run.”
UBC’s first regular season games will take place this weekend as the T-Birds host their provincial rivals from Victoria. The Vikes are ranked No. 10 in the CIS and come in with a 2-0 record after sweep the University of Regina Cougars last weekend. Friday’s game will tip off at 8 p.m. while Saturday’s matchup will begin at 7 p.m. Both games will be played at War Memorial Gymnasium.

Hanson will have an opportunity to reach his second big milestone this year. He currently owns 599 victories in his career (261 at Langara and 338 at UBC). In the pre-season, Hanson broke the school record for most wins as men’s basketball coach. On Oct. 26 in Guelph, Ont., he got his 338th triumph as the T-Birds’ bench boss, surpassing the previous mark of 337 held by the late Dr. Peter Mullins.