The last time the Dinos men's basketball team played a meaningful game, it was on the hard court of Scotiabank Place against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the national semi-finals in Ottawa in March. They had beaten the T-Birds a scant two weeks earlier to capture the Canada West conference crown for the first time since 2004 and were looking to take a spot in the national final for the first time since 1966.
They lost, 79-74, in an intense four-quarter battle, as the T-Birds effectively ended the Dinos' championship hopes for the second season in a row.
"Losing in the semi-final leaves a taste in your mouth -- you want to get back there," says Dinos head coach Dan Vanhooren. "They're motivated."
And on a team that's returning four of five starters and five bench players, there's plenty bad taste to go around.
Vanhooren, though, says that the improved post-season results haven't necessarily changed the team or their mentality.
"Last year, the team believed in themselves and they knew that they were capable of doing something special," he says. "This year's team is a different team than last year. There's a team culture that's developed through the last three years with regard to how hard we work and the off-season training and the focus on nutrition. Our guys are really doing a good job of looking after themselves and getting prepared."
In the off-season, the Dinos lost Henry Bekkering after two seasons of exciting dunks, steals and plenty of scoring (he averaged just over 20 points in both seasons). Obviously, he'll be hard to replace, but Vanhooren is confident in his younger players.
"We have similar strength up front with our big kids," he says. "But we're different on the perimeter; we're a little quicker. We're a little better shooting team than we have been in the past. That combination . . . may make us even better in the future."
That shooting has yet to come through in three pre-season games. The Dinos made a trip out east to Quebec City to play in a tournament last weekend. They shot only 38 per cent in the three games, but that didn't stop them from winning all three by a combined margin of 48 points.
"Can you imagine how good we can be if we have an offensive night when we put up a number like 55 per cent?" Vanhooren asks.
They'll get another crack at the offence against the University of Winnipeg Wesmen at home this weekend, though it'll likely still be a work in progress. Because of the longer seasons the team has gone through in the last few years, Vanhooren's crew only played in the Quebec tournament and not in the usual six or more contests before the start of conference play.
"We have four returning starters, it's not like we're going to walk out on the floor and they're not going to know anything that they're doing," says Vanhooren. "We didn't feel we needed to beat up on their bodies that length of time and that we'd be conserving our team better if we started practice a little later and only have the one pre-season tournament."
After last season, and with so many good returning players, expectations will be sky high. But it's a grind of a season and a long way until a spot in the Final 8 at Scotiabank Place. Vanhooren says his players are ready and excited to hit the court starting Friday at the Jack Simpson Gym.
"Our goal is to peak at the end of the year, not at the beginning of the year."