Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Training for more than a month now, the MacEwan Griffins men's basketball team is ready to be thrown into the fire.
How about a match right off the bat against one of the top teams in U SPORTS?
The Griffins will kick off their preseason schedule on Thursday by welcoming RSEQ powerhouse UQAM Citadins (8 p.m., David Atkinson Gym).
"The first game Thursday is going to be a good test of where we are because we play the preseason No. 8-ranked team in the country in University of Quebec at Montreal," said head coach Mike Connolly. "They're a little bit younger, but they're athletic, they're talented and they're a favourite to win the Quebec league. So, I think that will be a great test for us to see how we can deal with their athleticism."
The Griffins have undergone an off-season of change after finishing second last in Canada West in 2018-19 with a 1-19 record.
Initial changes began on the bench after Connolly was hired in April, coming over with 19 years of coaching experience – most recently at NAIT where he guided the Ooks to the 2016 CCAA national championship.
MacEwan's roster has been somewhat overhauled as well. While seven players return, including leading scorer Jake Notice, Connolly has brought in six new faces. Among them is 2018-19 ACAC first team all-star Mason Hunter – one of two transfers from UAlberta-Augustana.
"I like the way they're coming together," said Connolly of a group developing chemistry with one another. "It's been easier and they're further ahead as far as being a team than I expected at this time.
"We're getting better defensively. We still have a long way to go. We're getting better offensively. We still have a long way to go. But one thing I like is they're together, they seem to be focused and they're committed to each other, which is the most important thing for success."
MacEwan will also host the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in a non-conference match on Sunday (12 p.m., David Atkinson Gym).
"Sunday, playing Ontario Institute of Technology, I think that's a good game to get under our belts to get going, come together and get going," said Connolly.
The team's preseason road then winds through Kamloops, B.C. next weekend as the Griffins join a non-conference tournament with Canada West competition. They'll face Thompson Rivers University and UBC-Okanagan.
"I think it's important because we get to see where we're at," said Connolly. "It's a good trip on the road to bond and get closer."
All of those tests are designed to have the team on a fast break into the Canada West regular season, which begins Nov. 1 against Mount Royal University (8 p.m., David Atkinson Gym).
"You can only do so much in practice," noted Connolly. "In a game, there is a little bit more intensity and emotions are running (higher), but (it's also important) to be in a structured situation with officials, so you've gone through that are there are no distractions when (the regular season comes)."