It'll be a mix of the present and the future for the Bisons men's basketball team in 2021-22, who under 13-year veteran head coach Kirby Schepp finished 16-4 two seasons ago — their most wins since joining Canada West.

The roster includes three players (James Wagner, Keiran Zziwa, Cameron O'Hara) who were members of the team that advanced to nationals in 2016-17, along with six impact first-years and a handful of third and fourth-years looking to take the next step this season.

"It's really interesting when you look at our roster. We have this group of old guys, and then we have a big group of young guys. Even [6'6" forward] Cieran O'Hara, Cam's younger brother, he's still technically year one even though he's in his third year out of high school, because he redshirted for a year and then had a COVID year," noted Schepp.

"He's year one, [6'3" guard] Mason [Kraus] is year one, [6'4" guard] Daren [Watts] is year one, [6'4" guard] Sam [Jensen] is year one and [6'6" forward] Jonam [Kazadi] is year one. It's really awesome to see where the future of the program is going. There's a lot of cool stuff there. We're just really excited about that group."

Solid depth at guard

As Schepp mentioned, the Mason Kraus era is officially here for the Herd. An All-Manitoba selection in 2018-19 with Sturgeon Heights as well as a First-Team All-Canadian at the 2019 Canada Basketball National Championships, the point guard joined Rise Academy in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association and attended Bill Crothers Secondary in Markham, Ontario last year. It's the same school that 2019-20 U SPORTS Second-Team All-Canadian Rashawn Browne attended, and going forward, it'll be Kraus' spot as Browne has graduated.

"He was a local guy, but he had gone away to Ontario for the last couple years of prep school and was a nationally recruited guy. Mason has filled in right away. He's been starting from day one at point guard," says Schepp.

"The learning curve is steep, especially at that position, but he's a really bright kid who works very hard and is very talented. We think our future is really bright with Mason. Like any young player he's probably going to take his share of mistakes early, but he's also the kind of kid who learns very quickly from those mistakes. We're super excited for the Mason Kraus era at point guard. It's off to a pretty solid start."

At shooting guard, Zziwa returns for his final year following a tremendous summer playing for Uganda in the African Championships. He had a career year in 2019-20, averaging 15.4 points per game and a team-leading 28 steals while also dialling 33 percent from long distance and is a more mature player from his experience at the national team level. That should be evident to anyone who sees him play this season.

"He obviously had an awesome experience over in Africa. He played in the qualifiers in Egypt in AfroBasket #1, and if you can play in an African championship, man what an incredible experience. He had some really good coaching out there too. It was kind of an eye-opening experience for him in terms of seeing where he could go. He saw an opportunity for life after the U of M a little bit," says Schepp.

"I think that's motivated him to kind of push through a little bit here. We're looking for a big year from him. He battled a couple of nagging injuries early on, but I think he's getting better. I think he's poised for a really good year and should be very impactful for us. This really is year seven for him, because he redshirted and then he had a COVID year as well, so he's been around a long time. I think for him, it's a challenge of trying to think like a pro a little bit, but he's still kind of here. I think he's probably much calmer than he was in the past.

Depth won't be an issue in either the front or back court for the Bisons. They always have a deep bench and this season will be no different. Fourth-year Risto 'Riki' Zimbakov is an energy player who can guard and knock down open threes, something he did in spades two seasons ago. He was in the top five in the conference in three-point percentage at 47 and also had 17 steals for a Bisons team that plays active defence up and down the court.

Newcomers Eljiah Lostracco, Tito Obasoto, Sam Jensen and Daren Watts are also valuable assets at guard. Lostracco is in his fourth year of eligibility, as he transferred from Redeemer University where he played three seasons, shooting 48 percent from the floor and 41 percent from distance. At 5'10", he's "a bit of a bulldog and can really shoot the ball."

Additionally, Obasoto, a 2020 commit "who's shown tremendous promise", can play in multiple positions and has two years of prep experience in Halifax, where he averaged a double-double per game (18 points, 10.9 rebounds). Jensen is another guy who can play all over the court and has been a great shooter. Schepp feels he'll come in and made an impact right away, which is no surprise as he previously averaged 25 points per game for Sturgeon Heights.

Watts is a 2021 recruit out of Miles Mac who was the highest-voted underclassmen in the Winnipeg Sun's annual coaches' poll in 2019-20 at number two. He's also capable of playing in a variety of spots on the court and can "flat out shoot the basketball."

"I'll tell you what, what a kid," mentioned Schepp. "His work ethic is unbelievable. He's a super-high character guy. There's certain guys where the ball just goes in for them, and he's one of those guys. He can just put the ball in the bucket in multiple ways. That's a really, really good skill to have."

Mix of veterans and rising stars at forward

At small forward, third-year Wyatt Tait has stepped up big time and is primed for a standout campaign following the graduation of Andre Arruda. The 6'6" big man was recruited out of Oak Park in 2017 where he was a two-time provincial champ and averaged a double-double per game in 2016-17 (22 points, 14 rebounds), but has dealt with significant adversity over the last few years with injuries. He's continued to fight and looks better than ever.

"He had a couple of redshirt years and was trying to get a handle on things a little bit. It was a struggle for him, both on and off the court in many ways. We sort of saw throughout the pandemic it started to come, but even more so this past summer. He kind of got himself right physically, which helped get himself right mentally and confidence-wise. It really grew," says Schepp.

"He had the best game of his career in our last exhibition game. He was four-of-five from three and had 14 points. He was really solid for us. He's an exciting guy because he can play multiple spots and do multiple things. He can play power forward or he can play outside a little bit. It's pretty cool to see him finally blossoming into an impact player."

At power forward is 6'7" fifth-year James Wagner, one of the team leaders and a former All-Rookie Team selection from the squad's run to the Final 8 in 2017. He's been a constant in the lineup from day one and has added ten pounds of muscle to an already athletic frame. The former conference all-star averaged 16.7 points per game and 8.95 rebounds per game in 2019-20 and will be a matchup nightmare all year.

"He's a little physically stronger and a little bigger and he's just slowed down a little. He's playing way less frantic. He makes his decisions slower and he's just more poised," noted Schepp.

"I think to me that's the biggest difference that I noticed in his game that will really benefit him. He's kind of our anchor on offence in many ways offensively. We can just give him the ball and the game will slow down a little bit and he can make good decisions. He's been there before and he can kind of do everything. He's probably our unquestioned leader. James and Cam [O'Hara] are certainly in our leadership positions."

Speaking of Cam, he'll share the frontcourt with his younger brother more to start this season, as returning big Isaac Miller-Jose will be out to start the campaign — but could return at a later date. It means a larger role for O'Hara, the fourth-year centre, but one that the defensive playmaker is ready for.

"It's probably going to give a bigger opportunity to Cieran O'Hara. Isaac was probably fighting for that starting spot with Cam and they were pretty much a trade-off. Isaac's probably more gifted as an offensive player than Cam is, and Cam is more of a positional defender," says Schepp. "Losing Isaac puts Cam in a bigger role in some ways, but he was always going to be in a big role. Cam is certainly our leader and our anchor defensively in many ways."


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