Scott Clark, head coach of the TRU WolfPack, knows his team's improvement starts with stops.
Defensive stops, that is.
Clark will lead the WolfPack into the Canada West men's basketball season today. TRU will play host to the UNBC Timberwolves at the Tournament Capital Centre at 8 p.m.
The WolfPack is coming off its best season since joining Canada West in 2005-06, but even that isn't overly impressive. The WolfPack was 6-12, missing the playoffs, and struggled in the second half after starting 5-4.
If the WolfPack is going to be better this season, it's going to have to start on one particular end of the court.
"We have to be better defensively," Clark said. "We have to improve (on defence), and that has been a focus."
The defensive numbers from 2011-12 aren't exactly pretty.
TRU allowed 84.6 points per game, 11th in what was a 14-team conference (with UNBC and the Mount Royal Cougars joining this season, Canada West now has 16 teams). Of its 18 games, the WolfPack allowed opponents to score 100 points twice, 90 points on three occasions and 80 points six times.
On only two occasions did the WolfPack hold opponents to fewer than 70 points. To put that in perspective, the best defensive team in the conference, the Alberta Golden Bears, allowed an average of 69.7 points per game.
Clark crunched some numbers, comparing last season's WolfPack to the CIS semifinal teams - the Fraser Valley Cascades, Alberta, the Carleton Ravens and the St. Francis Xavier X-Men. Clark compared "points scored, points against, field-goal percentage, field-goal percentage against, three-point field goals, three-point field goals against, home record, away record."
"We called it a competitive analysis," he added. "We put those things in strength or weakness categories, and offensively last season, we were as good as or better than those teams."
So how did those teams thrive, while the WolfPack lost two-thirds of its games?
"Where we weren't as good was points against, field-goal percentage against, we turned the ball over a few more times," he said. "Our road record was terrible; the other teams were .500 (on the road) - they weren't great. But what leads to success on the road . . . goes back to what you can do defensively."
Clark, in his third season as the WolfPack's head coach, has been trying to pound that message home for the past two months.
But with five new players, there's still a lot to learn for the youngsters. And realistically, learning defence isn't exactly what most basketball players would consider fun.
"Myself, when I was a rookie working on the defensive side of the game, I found that everything was so much faster and more physical," said guard Kevin Pribilsky, the WolfPack's lone fifth-year player. "Those two aspects for a rookie, and even as you get older, they're always struggles."
If you're looking for experience on this TRU roster, it pretty much starts and ends with Pribilsky and guard Akeem Pierre, who is in his fourth CIS season after playing two with the UBC Thunderbirds.
TRU also has third-year guards Brett Parker and Brett Rouault, four second-year returnees, three true freshmen, two U.S. college transfers and a coach trying to teach them how to be competitive.
"We're awfully young . . . so we could use that as an excuse," Clark said. "I don't think UNBC cares whether that's a valid excuse or not.
"This is a basketball team, and we have a job to do and a responsibility to do it."
The WolfPack will look to Pribilsky and Pierre for leadership, but also to twin 6-foot-10 centres Blaz and Ivan Bozinovic, who are into their second seasons and constantly improving, for size in the paint.
Clark seems particularly excited about freshman Troy Grant, a 6-foot-2 native of Brampton, Ont. Grant, a shooting guard, averaged 16.8 points last season for his club team, the Regional Elite Development Academy in Toronto, which won the national prep school title.
"He's a good athlete, he's got good basketball skills, he's got good instincts and a very good attitude," Clark said. "He's always trying to learn, to get better . . . and I've been really pleased with him."
Perhaps if Grant steps up early, it will take some of the pressure off Pribilsky, who averaged 34 minutes per game last season, fourth most in Canada West. He did so while getting battered around and still running a decent WolfPack offence.
"Zach Usherwood, he's a second-year and he's improved, and Troy Grant . . . they should be ready to fill in in the back-up roles," said Pribilsky, a 22-year-old Victoria native. "I don't think I'll have to play quite as many minutes.
"It's my last year, and you don't ever want to be sitting on the bench in your last year. I'm excited."
FREE THROWS: Chas Kok, who averaged 19.3 points for the WolfPack last season, fifth best in Canada West, now is an assistant coach after using up his eligibility. . . . Clark also has brought on Mark Simpson as an assistant. Simpson is a former coach of the Malaspina Mariners and Dover Bay High School Dolphins, both in Nanaimo. He won championships at both levels. . . . The WolfPack and Timberwolves also will play Saturday, 7 p.m., at the TCC. . . . Canada West is divided into two conferences - Prairie and Pacific. The Pacific features seven B.C. teams and Mount Royal, which calls Calgary home. . . . The WolfPack will be participating in Movember to raise money for cancer awareness.
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