In a season where everything is a ‘first’, the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks men’s basketball team has just completed its first road trip.
The Ridgebacks travelled to Edmonton, Alta. Thanksgiving weekend to participate in the annual Golden Bears Invitational tournament hosted by the University of Alberta.
“University of Alberta is nationally-ranked, a very tough team. Lethbridge is right on that bubble, too,” said Ontario Tech’s head coach Greg Francis. Francis coached the University of Alberta Golden Bears from 2009-2012, ending with a Canada West conference win and an appearance in the 2012 national championship game.
“We’ve got a lot of challenges and we faced MacEwan and they played their best, as good as they play. I think for our guys it’s a big learning experience. We have to put some things together to win games.”
The trip was not kind to the team in the win column, losing all three games, 93-59 to the Alberta Golden Bears, 97-81 to Lethbridge University Pronghorns and 100-76 to the MacEwan University Griffins. However, the players and coaching staff are positive as they look back on the weekend.
“I think the teams in Ontario are tough, but Alberta is national level toughness. You can’t buy that type of experience for a team like ours. A team that’s in it, in the mix for nationals, quarter-finals, semi-finals every year. If we get something from them, it’s their level of toughness,” said Francis.
The Ridgebacks’ players found themselves closer as a team as a result of their stay in the west as well.
“I think it was a really good team bonding experience, sleeping in a hotel room with teammates, having to go out at night to eat together,” said freshman guard Graddy Kanku. “It was 10 out of 10 for sure.”
The road trip was a homecoming for two Ridgebacks’ freshmen Chris Ogie from Morinville, Alta. and D’on Duncan from Calgary, Alta.
“It was a really fun going back and seeing people I know, seeing them in the crowd and cheering us on,” said Ogie.
Kanku led the team in scoring all three games, with 21 points against Alberta, 20 versus Lethbridge and 24 against MacEwan.
“(Graddy Kanku) is a tough matchup for anybody because he’s usually bigger, stronger, faster than the guys he plays against and he’s a good passer and playmaker,” said Francis. “When he plays attacking basketball like that, he’s such a load for the other team.”
Veteran guard Ammar Hassan added an eye-popping 16 of his 20 points in one quarter against Lethbridge. It was a Ridgeback record for most points in a quarter. (Of course, as a first-year team, a lot of records will be set this season.)
Hassan wasn’t taking the credit however, passing the praise to his teammates for his performance.
“To be honest it was mostly on my team. All my shots weren’t created individually by myself they were created by one more pass,” he said. “My team was just finding me in the right spots, and they noticed I had the hot hand and allowed me to go for 16. It wasn’t me creating my own shots, it was my team looking out for me.”
Since returning from Alberta, practices have seen a renewed focus on inside-out offensive sets and cutting down on turnovers as a team.
“I think we’re a different team when our forwards are utilized,” said Francis. “However, a lot of guards are not used to having to use forwards and I’m like yeah, you have to use them, they’re actually good when you do that.”
The team is already looking forward to its first Ontario University Athletics conference game Oct. 25 in Sudbury, Ont. against Laurentian Voyageurs.
“First game of the season, I’m excited to show how far we’ve come. I don’t think our record really shows how far we’ve come as a team,” said Hassan.
Kanku has his sights set on his first big matchup of the season as he’s set to face two-time USports basketball player of the year Kadre Gray of Laurentian.
“I’m looking forward to that matchup with Kadre Gray and to see what we can do against their team,” said Kanku. “The pre-season is over. This is the real season now.”