Bisons grinding their way to the top U of M men’s hoops team dominates with defence
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This is a story about a team of grinders who rarely, if ever, find playing the game to be a grind.
Even Kirby Schepp, head coach of the University of Manitoba men’s basketball team, has caught the fever.
“I’ve never loved coming to work more than I have this year because those guys are unbelievable,” Schepp said earlier this week, pointing to the locker room next door where his players were preparing for practice. “Just great human beings and high-character people with a tremendous level of buy-in and togetherness.”
Schepp is in his 14th season at the helm of the program, so his enthusiasm should be a valid indicator.
The Bisons, ranked sixth in the country in the most recent U Sports national coaches’ poll, are 11-1 and challenging the No. 4 Victoria Vikes for top spot in Canada West conference.
Manitoba hasn’t reached the national tournament since finishing second in Canada West in 2017, building its recent climb in the national rankings on a foundation of inflicting misery on opponents with its conference-leading defence.
The Bisons lead Canada West in some key defensive metrics: limiting opponents to .75 points per half-court possession, a 29. 1 percentage from behind the three-point line while averaging 4.6 blocked shots per game. Manitoba also sits a close second in steals at 11.42 per game.
Schepp preaches a team approach to defending but points to second-year guard Mason Kraus, forward Isaac Miller-Jose and second-year forward Ceiran O’Hara as key to the operation.
The upgrade in play from 2021-22 is noticeable.
“We weren’t all bought into the system (last year),” said Kraus. “I feel this year like with me — I think I’m one of the best defensive guards in the country — and I feel like Isaac is one of the best big rim protectors in the country. And (you can’t forget) about our other guys, Tito (Obasoto), Cieran O’Hara… everyone.”
Miller-Jose, in his fifth year, has witnessed the evolution.
“Part of it is (Schepp’s) teaching, but another part of it is the new guys are coming in and they’re absorbing everything and wanting to be a part of that culture,” said the 6-8 forward. “They’re just working really hard.”
Schepp wants scrappy, versatile defenders and that was never more evident Friday night in Brandon with the Herd trailing the Bobcats by six points in the final minute.
Miller-Jose contributed a pair of three-pointers and the 6-2 Kraus chipped in with a blocked shot, a steal and the game-winning free throw as the Bisons walked away with a stunning 85-84 comeback victory.
“I’m like a pest,” said Kraus. “I just make it difficult… I feel like all of our guards do that well, and then we have Isaac in the back — he’s just a big safety.”
For Schepp, Kraus’s all-round game was on full display against BU.
“He was primary defender on Jahmaal Gardner, (Brandon’s) best player, but really he just makes plays defensively,” said Schepp. “I mean, on Friday he finished with 17 points on only eight shot attempts (with) six rebounds, six assists, four steals and four blocks.”
The 6-6 O’Hara, a second-year player from St. Paul’s High School, had two steals, six points and a season-high 14 rebounds in the comeback win over Brandon.
“This, I think, is a strength of our team,” said Schepp. “Cieran can guard (positions) one through five, Isaac can guard one through five, Simon (Hildebrandt) can guard one through five. We’re very switchable, malleable.”
Added Miller-Jose: “I don’t know if it’s overconfidence, but I’d like to say that I can guard anybody. But I’m excited when I get switched on to a smaller matchup and it’s a challenge for me to stay in front and play good defence. That’s the kind of thing that I enjoy.”
“But I’m excited when I get switched on to a smaller matchup and it’s a challenge for me to stay in front and play good defence. That’s the kind of thing that I enjoy.”–Isaac Miller-Jose
Manitoba’s rise in the rankings has been accompanied by a similar surge by the Winnipeg Wesmen, who were rated No. 10 in the most recent coaches’ poll.
The Wesmen could be the biggest regular-season threat remaining for the Bisons, who host the unranked Mount Royal Cougars from Calgary on Friday and Saturday.
Winnipeg and Manitoba collide on Feb. 3 at Investors Group Athletic Centre with the rematch going Feb. 4 at the Duckworth Centre.
Winnipeg hoops fans should be eagerly anticipating a potential Canada West final between the two local programs, which haven’t met for a conference championship since the Great Plains Athletic Conference final in 1984-85.
“If we hosted it here it would be insane,” said Kraus. “The gym would be packed. It would be a fun series.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.