The men’s basketball team is off to their hottest start since they won the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) championship in 2011.
And for head coach Rick Plato, it doesn’t come as a shock.
The Gazette sat down with Plato to look back on some of the key points of the season so far, and discuss what the team has to do to keep the momentum moving forward into the new year.
Gazette: So, you guys are off to a 5-1 start. Were you expecting that entering the season with such a young team?
Plato: I told the guys early on that the key word for me was going to be patience. I think in a lot of ways they’re ahead of schedule, but at the same time I have to remember that half the team are freshman. The eight new bodies we’ve brought in are very athletic, have a good work ethic, are talented and have come together very well.
G: How is it having Devon Stedman back from injury, and what kind of presence does he bring to this team?
Plato: It’s great. He’s just so smart. He’s got a great basketball IQ. He’s a great passer, shooter and he’s very cerebral. He’s also a steadying force in the post. The biggest thing with him is his knee. We just make sure we manage his minutes and with the minutes he’s given, he’s a steadying influence.
G: The player who looks like they’ve made the biggest change in their game compared to last year is Jarred Reid. What sparked that improvement?
Plato: Jarred worked on his game all summer. His three pointers improved and he’s playing with a lot more confidence. I can play him at the two or the one and he does a really job. He’s always been a good defender, too. Jarred’s just a solid guy all the way around.
G: How are you utilizing Kashrell Lawrence’s eye for the game, and how, if it all, will that change moving into the second half of the season?
Plato: Like the guys say, he’s beast mode. He’s just so strong. Even last year he started off well, but then had some problems with his knee and couldn’t play like he could. Like I’ve told Kash all along – there are two ends to the court. He’s learning now that he has to play some defence and become a good rebounder. He’s another guy that gives us such good leadership. He’s one of the guys that not just the rookies, but the veterans look to for leadership.
G: Do you think you’ve established a go-to guy on the court over the past six games? Who is the main driving force behind this team?
Plato: The guy that makes us go is Ritchie [Kanza Mata]. He just gives such stability. We run a lot of different offensive sets, but at the end of the clock I want the ball in Ritchie’s hands. And early on if we can go inside to Kash without forcing it, we can take advantage of his high percentage, too.
G: How have you noticed the team bonding effectively not only on, but off the court? Has that translated into success on the hardwood?
Plato: The thing about all these guys is that they’re such good people. They don’t walk around like they own the place and I think that’s really important because I want them to blend in with the rest of the students. And I think they get that. But yes, we’re running a lot of basketball camps with a lot of young campers and they’re volunteering in the community with under privileged kids, and I feel really lucky to have such a great group of guys.
G: How are you personally adapting into the coaching role at Dal, and how is it different than last year and previous coaching positions?
Plato: Every day is a learning experience. There’s a lot of good support in the faculty, and with the success we’re having, I think people are starting to get excited a little bit. But the biggest thing to me is I want the guys to be student athletes and not think they’re better than everybody else. I always tell them that basketball has a means to an end. It’s a vehicle, but it’s what you do with that piece of paper and the relationships they make that really matter.
G: There’s definitely evident optimism moving into the new year, but what’s your greatest fear for 2015?
Plato: The biggest thing is we’ve got to stay committed. I just told the boys – we haven’t won anything yet. To win the whole thing, you have to be lucky. Lucky by staying healthy. Last year we had some serious injuries to three key guys and it really hurts in a lot of different ways. We still have two-thirds the season to play, though. Last year we lost two one point games at the buzzer, so we have to be continue to manage the clock better down the stretch.
G: At the end of the day, what’s it going to take for this team to take home the championship?
Plato: You want to establish an identity and with ours, it’s tough defence. The one thing about us is we have real good balance. One game Ritchie could lead the team, Jarred could lead the team, Devon could lead the team – they all can do it. Right now we are far deeper, more athletic and more committed to playing defence. We’ve got a long way to go, but I don’t think anyone’s working harder than these guys.