Vikings look to heal from injury-filled season
Mason Hunter made a big impact in his first season with the University of Alberta-Augustana Vikings as the injuries stacked up among their starters. Head coach Dave Drabiuk is carving out a bigger role for him next Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference season. File Photo/Camrose Canadian
The University of Alberta-Augustana Vikings men's basketball team was supposed to take the next step this season.
They were supposed to contend in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference North Division after snapping their playoff drought last year.
They were supposed to be carried by the deepest roster the team had seen in years.
But there was no way they could have been prepared for the injury epidemic that beset the club and dropped them to a 6-18 record and a second last place finish in the division.
Head coach Dave Drabiuk had never gone through anything quite so frustrating on the basketball court.
"My soul is recovering slowly," said Drabiuk. "It's shattering to have those high expectations … and our roster healthy, those were reasonable expectations that we could end up in a very good playoff position.
"Our players … spent a season grinding and never giving up on what those expectations were. I think they held themselves accountable for those expectations as best they could while looking over and realizing we didn't have everybody."
The issues they went through have shaped how they are approaching this offseason. They have a small recruiting class of two players with a third – Kellen Morris -- transferring in from the Grande Prairie Regional College Wolves. However, they are only losing five players off of their roster from this past season, meaning the same reason they should have been successful this past season holds over to next season. So long as they are not bitten by injuries again. Knock on wood.
In attempt to lighten the load on the team doctor, Drabiuk is changing his approach to this roster. This big thing is he will be shifting players around in an effort to manage minutes and mitigate wear and tear.
The biggest move will be sliding third year guard Eddy Nkerabahizi over to the point to split time with fifth year senior Darian Smigorowsky. The head coach will be looking at a potential 20-minute/20-minute split between the two guards.
In reality, point guard is a more natural position for the pass-first Nkerabahizi.
"Sometimes it's just bad coaching," said Drabiuk with a laugh. "We thought with Darian at the point and with Eddy on the win in the 2-3 position where he can attack, we can get him some mismatches … and what we found was Eddy needs to have the ball in his hands to get things started … Eddy is one of those guys where if you get him the ball, he will give it up. He's very unselfish. At the 2-3 position we needed him to be selfish … and he was still looking to be the (Scottie) Pippen-esque point forward and continue to distribute. We thought why are we fighting this?"
The move will also free up more court time for Mason Hunter who established himself as a star in the making, averaging 10.4 points per game as a freshman as the infirmary backed up.
"He really emerged as guy who's going to be really good in this league," said Drabiuk. "It gives him a chance to play now where he's not waiting guys like Eddy to graduate."
The silver lining to all of the injuries also took their depth from theoretical to battle tested. While it was painful to go through, everyone got to play because they had to, and Drabiuk saw just what young players like Hunter, Jake Frostad, Austin Brulotte, Nathan Bowie, and Elijah Schmuland. The latter of which likely would have hardly touched the floor otherwise, but he impressed with his energy and raw instincts in the low post.
"We didn't even think Eli would dress for us this year as a redshirt, but he came in and was player of the game for us once and had a couple of terrific games for us," said Drabiuk. "If we can get him into the regular rotation next year, he could just explode on us."
The key will be for him to find a balance of adding strength to his frame without sapping his speed and quickness. A number of players will be working with former Vikings basketball player Tony Nguyen at Free Fitness to develop that program.
The Vikings will be hosting an ID camp on April 15 at the university as they work to build their 2019 recruiting class as the registration deadline is March 1.
"There are a couple of select Grade 11s that we've invited to the ID camp because we want to get a good look at them moving forward, they've expressed interest already that this may be a destination for them after high school," said Drabiuk, who added they will also be tracking the start of his returning players training.