Even after losing his team’s starting point guard to graduation, University of Toronto basketball coach Rick Dilena is confident about his team this season.
Last year saw the Varsity Blues finish with a 14-8 record and 28 points, second in the OUA East division only to the eventual national champion Carleton Ravens.
Dilena expects the younger players added to roster will eventually have an impact on the club, but it will be difficult for them to crack the lineup with so much experience on the rest of the squad.
“We’ve brought in two or three young players who may not help us a whole lot this year but they’re going to be pretty good in the future,” Dilena told the Observer.
“Right now we’ve got a starting five, a veteran five, of three fifth year players and a third and fourth year. [The younger players] may have trouble finding time but every game is different and hopefully will be able to so they can learn and develop.”
After winning 14 of 19 regular season games last year, the team sputtered to the end, losing its final three games before getting a first-round playoff bye.
Home-court advantage did little to help the Varsity Blues woes as they came out on the wrong side of a 85-60 game against the Ottawa Gee Gee’s, ending their season prematurely.
According to co-captain Andrew Wasik, an OUA all star in 2010-11, defence was the team’s downfall, and the same thing won’t happen this year.
“We got a couple different schemes this year and we’re dedicating every single player to do their job and take care of their man,” Wasik said of the team’s new dedication on defence.
Varsity has posted a 4-4 pre-season record so far, with two of the losses coming to the University of California Santa Barbara, and Wittenberg University, both of the NCAA.
Against CIS competition, the team has gone 3-2. Victories came against McMaster, McGill and Dalhousie but Toronto fell to St. Francis Xavier and the University of Manitoba by a combined seven points.
As Wasik, a fifth-year player entering his last season with the team pointed out, it’s difficult for a group to pick up on new strategies right away.
“A couple games in it’s a trial and error thing,” he said. “Every game we’re getting a little better.
“Each game is one step that we’d like to take in the right direction and I think we’re doing that so far.”
Toronto has been playing without another key veteran during parts of the pre-season. Drazen Glisic was a provincial all star last season and looks to improve in his final year at Toronto.
While the team will be relying primarily on it’s veteran leadership, Glisic is confident that there will not be a steep learning curve for new members of the squad to gel with the rest of the group.
“We lost our point guard, that’s the heart and soul of a basketball team,” Glisic said. “I think we have guys that can step up that can play the role well. I’m expecting bigger and better things this year.”
“I think we’re doing well, we’ve had a strong pre-season.”
Confidence is a quality that this team doesn’t lack and the lofty expectations from both players and the coaching staff prove that sentiment.
“We’d like to finish as high as possible to get a home playoff game,” coach Dilena said. “Last year we started real quick and sort of faded at the end, so I wouldn’t mind if we had a slow start and finished strong too.”
Top-two is the goal
For both Wasik and Glisic, having a strong final season in a Varsity Blues uniform is important and anything less than a top-two finish in the OUA East would be a disappointment.
Both veterans expressed their desire to improve their personal level of play and receive league recognition again, but team success is the ultimate goal.
Competitive spirits remain high, as Wasik points out perhaps the loftiest expectation this team has for the year.
“I’d like to personally beat Carleton home or away, doesn’t matter.”
Whether or not Toronto can beat the defending national champions remains to be seen, but one thing that is certain for the squad is a high-level of confidence and a chance at a very successful year.
The Varsity Blues begin their OUA season on Nov. 11 as the University of Waterloo Warriors visit for an 8 p.m. tip-off at the University of Toronto’s Athletic Centre.