Last Valentine’s Day was heartbreaking for the Western Mustangs men’s basketball team. No, they weren’t collectively dumped and left alone, but they were beaten convincingly by a team that had no business beating them.
It was the Windsor Lancers who defeated the Mustangs that February night, giving the Lancers a berth in the Ontario University Athletics semifinals — where they were eventually routed by the Carleton Ravens by almost 40 points — and ending the Mustangs season much earlier than expected.
The Mustangs are hoping this season will tell a different tale, as they look to improve their position in the OUA West and win their first playoff game since 2014.
“We sat down as a team and created some goals, and our goal is basically to try to finish in the top two in the OUA West and hopefully play a game that has a chance to qualify us for the national championship," said Mustangs head coach Brad Campbell. "We came close to that last year but fell short in the playoffs. You know were going to take one game at a time.”
Over the past two months, the Mustangs have competed in nine exhibition games to prepare for league play, of which they won seven. They played an assortment of NCAA Division III schools, as well as other colleges and universities from around Canada.
They wrapped up the pre-season this past Thursday with a 97–72 win over the Mount Royal Cougars at Alumni Hall. Marko Kovac led the Mustangs with 30 points, six boards and five steals.
Kovac was a force for much of the pre-season, pressuring players to make mistakes and capitalizing on turnovers. He knows how to use his big frame, often muscling his way to the basket and dominating down low.
MARKO KOVAC, WHAT A MOVE!!— Western Basketball (@Mustangs_Bball) October 19, 2018
Western 73 Mount Royal 61| 4Q 7:55 pic.twitter.com/BE4GZYFaRS
In the off-season, Kovac battled through various injuries. Now in his senior year, Kovac, who averaged over 14 points a game last season, hopes to stay healthy while improving his knowledge of the game.
"I think the main part I worked on this off-season was my IQ level," said Kovac. "I was able to go back and watch older film on myself and realize when I am doing too much and just learning how to make the game easier on myself."
It was hard to see any fatigue in Kovac in the Mustangs' pre-season contest against Mount Royal. The pre-season gives injured players an opportunity to rehab at a slower pace, but it also allows an opportunity for rookies to get some quality minutes and learn the system in a faster-paced setting than practice. After the Mount Royal game, Campbell was asked about the importance of getting younger players into the lineup before the season opener.
"Well it's really important," said Campbell. "We are in league play next week on Wednesday at Guelph. So this pre-season, getting our new guys integrated into what we are doing, getting those minutes [in] different scenarios that we're going to see here in the non-conference schedule is very important."
Another Mustang to look out for is Omar Shiddo, who led the Mustangs in scoring in the 2017-18 campaign, averaging 14.6 points per game. Along with Kovac, Shiddo is a minutes-eater who can spread the floor with his versatile guard play. He showed off his stroke against the Cougars, going four of five from the three point line.
Omar hits a 3!— Western Basketball (@Mustangs_Bball) October 19, 2018
Western 37 Mount Royal 34| 2Q 3:25 pic.twitter.com/XUMka9C8G8
Shiddo and Kovac look to continue as the primary scorers on the team, but the Mustangs hope to develop depth on the roster this season — particularly at the centre position, which has been a problem area on the court for the Mustangs for years. Six-ten Jacob Van Santen, a second-year returning from injury, and freshman Aaron Tennant have been added to the lineup. Both have shown physicality and athleticism throughout the pre-season.
Aaron Tennant with the flush!— Western Basketball (@Mustangs_Bball) October 19, 2018
Western 15 Mount Royal 10 |1Q 4:45 pic.twitter.com/60p6shY2Ld
Coach Campbell commented on Tennant's dunk and the young front court
"Our front court right now is pretty young," said Campbell. "Aaron was a huge addition for us. He's got all kinds of athleticism. He's very good in transition, and on offence, he creates all kinds of problems. On the flip side of that, defensively for us, he does all kinds of great stuff. He's a first-year guy, so some games are going to look probably a little bit better than others, but we're looking forward to it.
With Van Santen, Tennant and Julian Walker at the five, Campbell has interesting lineup options that he can throw out on the court. This versatility across the roster is one of the reasons why so much is expected from the Mustangs heading into the season.
At the point guard position, senior Nik Farkic will have the keys to the offence. He averaged 5.5 assists per game last season and is looking to improve that number this year with a number of offensive options for him to get the ball to: Shiddo, Kovac and small forward Eriq Jenkins.
"Having those guys on the floor with me makes my job really easy," said Farkic about his teammates. "They all know I'm looking to put them in a position to score, and just playing together the past two years has allowed us to build that chemistry. Individually, every one of them can shoot the three-ball, but what makes my job easier and makes them really tough to guard is their ability to move without the ball."