The men’s basketball team started this season with high expectations after last year’s trip to the playoffs.
But November turned out to be a grueling month for the Mustangs, as the team was plagued by injuries and left without a strong bench. The situation became so dire the team barely even had a bench at all.
Head coach Brad Campbell knew his team was going to be in for a difficult ride.
“We definitely had a slow start,” he said. “We didn’t play very well and had a lot of injuries at that time. We basically were practising for a month with about nine players. We didn’t have the depth we needed to be successful.”
After the month was over, the Mustangs found themselves with a disappointing 3-5 record. However, December was a brand new month and the Mustangs knew they had to put their past losses behind them. So far, that’s exactly what they did.
The Purple and Silver received an early Christmas present when Andrew Wedemire returned to the lineup after recovering from an injury and Colin LaForme was deemed eligible to play after transferring from the NCAA’s Youngstown State University.
LaForme’s presence on the court has really helped shape the team.
“What he has given us is one of our major needs, a pillar of strength in terms of the defensive end of the floor, guarding the paint and rebounding,” Campbell said.
With a deep bench and a positive attitude, the Mustangs had a huge confidence boost when they won the Ryerson Invitational Tournament over the Christmas break, beating the then nationally-ranked Toronto Varsity Blues 80-66 in the final.
Campbell saw the tournament win as a big turning point for his squad.
“It was a nice reward for all of the hard work after a dismal November. We had a good December of practice leading up to the tournament. It was a huge confidence boost. We are definitely carrying that momentum into the New Year.”
Everyone on the team agrees the Ryerson win was pivotal in its recent success.
“Everyone’s effort and intensity seemed to get jacked up a bit. We really came together over this tournament. Our defensive intensity went through the roof. We have been riding that since,” forward Adam Ruickbie said.
Western currently has a 6-7 record, but Campbell feels the record does not give his team the credit it deserves.
“Our record since Christmas break is more indicative of our team. We had a poor November. We are going to take one game at a time.”
Ruickbie believes Western is not a sub-.500 team.
“Absolutely not. We have lost some games we should have won in November. Now that we are coming around with chemistry we should be doing a lot better.”
Western looks like a completely different team after the break. It has won three of its last five games, and both of its January losses have been at the hands of the defending Ontario University Athletics champion Windsor Lancers.
The last loss to the Lancers was a heartbreaker in which the Mustangs blew a halftime lead and lost 68-64.
“At the end, our defence stepped up, but our offence didn’t. We held them to 10 points in the fourth quarter,” Ruickbie said.
Unfortunately, Western only scored eight points in the fourth quarter and a meagre 23 in the entire second half.
Western has also won impressively over the Guelph Gryphons and Brock Badgers, who sit second and third place respectively in the OUA West division. Both wins were particularly important because Western will be battling these teams for playoff positions.
Ruickbie does not attribute the team’s recent success to any single player. “[Forward Brad Smith] has been scoring like crazy, but overall I think it’s the entire team and our defensive focus that has been contributing to our recent success.”
Smith is currently leading the Mustangs in scoring, averaging 19.2 points per game. With Matt Curtis and LaForme averaging double-digit scoring, the team has no trouble putting up points.
Western has averaged 87.5 points per game in its six wins while only allowing an average of 67.6 points. However, in its seven losses, the ’Stangs only scored 70.1 points and allowing 82.4.
With nine games remaining in the regular season, the Mustangs have a good shot at returning to the playoffs. However, their division is fiercely competitive and Campbell is aware of the stiff competition.
“Our league is always very difficult and this year there’s a huge log jam of teams right in the middle and there are few games off in almost every position, so every game in our league is going to be vital in determining playoff spots.”
LaForme is trying to take it one game at a time, but still cannot help thinking about the postseason.
“It is always in the back of your mind. You don’t want to look forward past anything, but it’s a tight race this year. Right now, we are technically in second-last place, but only four points away from second place.”
As long as the ’Stangs can remain healthy and keep doing what they are doing, they stand an excellent chance of making the playoffs and going deeper than last year.
“I have been very pleased with how tight a group we have,” Campbell said. “A lot of our guys have really checked their egos at the door and they are very committed to the team concept that we stand for and it has helped us fight through and get to this confident stage that we’re in now.”