THUNDER BAY, Ont. — If you’re reading this, it’s not too late.
While we’re still looking back on an incredible 2019-20 season, one that had no shortage of excitement across both U Sports and the CCAA, it’s also the perfect time to look ahead.
One way or another, the 2020-21 season is going to be one for the history books. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the start of the season has been pushed back until at least January 2021 for most leagues, with Quebec as the exception. The RSEQ has yet to formally annouce a decision on whether or not to delay sports until the Winter semester.
To get fans across the country ready for the new season, we’ve taken on a challenge that hasn’t been done before. In the coming weeks, we will preview every team from coast to coast ahead of the 2020-21 season.
That’s 112 different programs, if you’re keeping a tally at home.
We are attempting to preview each and every team from coast to coast ahead of the new season. Challenges have emerged in each of the last two seasons as we’ve attempted this feat before, but we’re going to give it another run.
As they say, third time’s the charm. Right?
For institutions that have both men’s and women’s basketball, a separate preview piece will be done for each team.
Rosters will be dissected and a look back at the year that was will help us determine what the team looks like this time around as every team begins with a blank slate in the standings.
Without further adieu, here is today’s preview for the Lakehead Thunderwolves Men’s Basketball program.
2019-20 in Review
Over the last two seasons, no team has made as big of a turnaround than the Lakehead Thunderwolves. Just two years ago, back in the 2017-18 season, the Thunderwolves finished at the bottom of the standings with a 2-22 record.
Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, and it was the exact opposite. Lakehead finished atop the Central Division, posting a 17-5 record and earning a First Round bye in the OUA Wilson Cup playoffs.
That’s a 15-win improvement, if you’re keeping tabs at home.
Head Coach Ryan Thomson is no stranger to success at Lakehead University. Having played his collegiate basketball with the Thunderwolves from 2009-2013, Thomson has enjoyed success with the program. He was part of a team that reached the U Sports Final 8 in each of those four seasons, and he was on the Lakehead team that brought home a CIS Silver Medal in 2012.
After his coaching career ultimately led him back to his alma mater, Thomson has the Thunderwolves thriving in the always-competitive OUA. Their 17 wins this past season were good enough for the third-highest total in the league, trailing only the Carleton Ravens (21), and Ottawa Gee-Gees (18).
The Thunderwolves started the season strong, winning six of their first seven games to build up some momentum as the season moved along. In their hot start, Lakehead swept the Ryerson Rams on November 1st and 2nd, two wins that were key in the Central Division race with the Rams ultimately finishing just a game behind the Thunderwolves for top spot.
Lakehead would continue their run of positive momentum, rattling off a nine-game winning streak from November 23rd through to February 1st. They would jump as high as fifth in the U Sports Top 10 rankings towards the tail end of their winning streak, and they held the fifth spot for back-to-back weeks at the end of January and into February.
As a result of their regular season success, the Thunderwolves were given a First Round bye in the OUA Wilson Cup Playoffs after finishing atop the Central Division. Their opponent in the Quarter-finals was none other than Ali Sow and the Laurier Golden Hawks, who were coming off a 91-81 road win over the Queen’s Gaels in their First Round match-up.
Lakehead and Laurier met once during the regular season, a 99-79 win for the Thunderwolves back on November 9th in Thunder Bay. The Thunderwolves were hoping for a repeat performance, while the Golden Hawks were looking to pick up yet another playoff road win and keep their Cinderella run alive.
The game wasn’t nearly as high-scoring as their first meeting, with both teams being held below 70 points. Lakehead led by three points after three quarters, 53-50, in what was a back-and-forth contest from the outset. Laurier came out in the fourth and found a way to overtake Lakehead, and they left CJ Sanders Fieldhouse with a 68-64 win to advance to the OUA Semifinals in the process.
It was a tough way for Lakehead’s 2019-20 season to come to a close, especially on their home floor. But, when looking back at where they were two seasons ago (2-22 in 2017-18), or even the year prior (10-14 in 2018-19), the Thunderwolves turned some heads over the course of the 2019-20 season.
Wins over Ryerson, Ottawa, and Laurier, among others, showed that this is a program that can compete with the top programs in the OUA on a nightly basis. All five of their regular season losses were by 11 points or fewer, and three of those five losses were decided by seven points or less. Each night out, Lakehead was competitive and gave themselves a shot to win, and that’s all you can ask.
Looking ahead to the 2020-21 season, the Thunderwolves will be looking to continue on their upwards trajectory. With a 15-win improvement over the last two years at their backs, confidence is high surrounding Lakehead, but they will be looking to build off last year’s regular season success and hopefully turn it into a playoff run this time around.
With the COVID-19 pandemic having an impact on schools all across Canada and the World, enrollment numbers and the makeup of rosters are very much up in the air. Any roster speculation is merely speculation until September when the first semester begins.
For Lakehead, they will be without at least four faces from last year’s 17-win program, one of which was one of the best players in the OUA last season.
Guard Isaiah Traylor (Tupelo, MS) is one of three players to have graduated from the program at year’s end. Traylor was named an OUA First Team All-Star in 2019-20 for his efforts on the floor, capping off a strong career at Lakehead.
Traylor led the Thunderwolves in scoring, averaging 22.1 points per game on 42.4% shooting from the field and 31.1% from three-point range. He ranked fifth in the OUA in scoring for the season, and was ninth in terms of free throw shooting percentage (80.8%). Traylor also chipped in 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
While he didn’t necessarily get the level of attention he deserved in the OUA, he was one of the league’s most consistent scorers. He recorded at least 10 points in all 22 regular season games, topping the 20-point mark in 16 of those games. Down the stretch, Traylor found another level to his offensive game. He averaged 27.3 points per game over Lakehead’s final six games of the regular season, scoring at least 21 points in each of the six games.
Traylor closed the regular season with a 40-point performance against Queen’s.
Along with Traylor, the Thunderwolves lose forwards Quincy Johnson (Kelowna, B.C.) and Kevin Ndahiro (Ottawa, Ont.) to graduation, while Blake Anderson (Brantford, Ont.) transferred out of the program.
Johnson averaged 1.1 points and 1.3 rebounds per game over 15 regular season appearances in 2019-20. Over his career, he averaged 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds per contest in 81 games. Johnson averaged a career-best 7.0 points per game back in the 2017-18 season.
Ndahiro came to the Thunderwolves after stints south of the border with both the Stetson Hatters and North Alabama Lions. In eight games this past season, the big man from Ottawa posted 0.8 points and 1.1 rebounds per contest.
Rounding out the group of *confirmed* departures from Lakehead is Blake Anderson. The native of Brantford, Ontario made the move closer to home, joining Head Coach Jamie Girolametto and the Redeemer Royals in the OCAA. Anderson averaged 2.7 points and 0.9 rebounds per game on 35.6% shooting from the field in 22 games.
With things constantly changing with the COVID-19 pandemic, there could still be more names that might not be back in 2020-21 as the situation around in-person classes and remote learning remains uncertain. While the loss of Traylor will be tough to replace, the Thunderwolves have plenty of talent back and ready to keep Lakehead trending upwards.
Despite the loss of Traylor, the Thunderwolves should have their share of talent back in the fold for the 2020-21 season. After Traylor, they are expected to return their next top six scorers, keeping the bulk of their core intact for another run at an OUA Championship.
The biggest two names returning for Lakehead are guard Laoui Msambya (Quebec City, QC) and forward Lock Lam (Ottawa, Ont.). Both Msambya and Lam picked up hardware when the 2019-20 OUA Awards were announced, and both will be focal points for the Thunderwolves moving forward.
Lakehead found its future face of the program with the addition of Msambya last season. In his first season in the OUA, the Quebec City product was named to the OUA All-Rookie Team after averaging 13.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game while shooting 48.0% from the field. He finished second on the team in scoring, and wasted little time before making an impact with his new team.
In his regular season debut against the McMaster Marauders back in October, Msambya recorded 14 points and six assists, helping Lakehead pick up a 110-108 win. Then, to close the season, he recorded 13 straight games with double-digit points. Msambya had double-digit points in 16 of his 21 regular season appearances.
With the loss of Traylor leaving a hole on offense, the Thunderwolves don’t have to look far to find their next go-to guy on the offensive end of the floor.
In the front court, it’s no secret that Lam is one of the premier big men across U Sports, let alone the OUA. He was named the OUA Defensive Player of the Year for the 2019-20 season after finishing second in the league with 157 defensive rebounds and first with 77 blocked shots.
Over the Thunderwolves’ 22 regular season games, Lam averaged 13.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 3.5 blocked shots per contest. He shot 48.1% from the field, 37.3% from three-point range, and 76.2% from the free throw line, showing that there’s a lot more to his game than just an imposing defensive presence.
On the heels of his successful 2019-20 season, Lam was selected with the Second Pick in the Second Round of the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) U Sports Draft by the Hamilton Honey Badgers as a Developmental Selection, thus preserving his U Sports eligibility while still allowing him to gain professional experience.
While Msambya and Lam will garner a lot of the attention, the Thunderwolves are expected to have even more talent back next year. Guard Alston Harris (Ottawa, Ont.), guard Chume Nwigwe (Toronto, Ont.), forward Eric Gonzalez (Sabadell, Spain), and guard Jamani Barrett (Brampton, Ont.) are all expected to be back in the fold for the 2020-21 season.
Harris averaged 10.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game last season, predominately off the bench, all while shooting 41.4% from the field and 41.9% from three-point range. With the departure of Traylor, more minutes should come the way of Harris, and he gives the Thunderwolves another strong back court option alongside Msambya.
Nwigwe played and started 20 games last season as a first-year guard. The Toronto native averaged 7.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest, while shooting 51.1% from the field on the year. He ranked 16th in the OUA in shooting percentage from the field. He’s yet another intriguing piece for the Thunderwolves in the back court, one that should take on an expanded role in 2020-21.
Up front, Gonzalez was another first-year player that performed rather well for Thomson and the Thunderwolves. The native of Sabadell, Spain averaged 6.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest while starting all 21 games he saw playing time.
Guard Jamani Barrett round out the core group of returnees. The Brampton, Ontario product chipped in with 7.3 points and 3.1 assists per game over his 14 regular season appearances. Barrett missed the last eight games of the regular season.
Last season, Lakehead had 10 players average at least two points per game, and eight of those players should factor back into the mix in 2020-21. Six of those eight players all average double-digit minutes per contest, giving the team a wealth of experience at the top of their depth chart.
When you add Lakehead’s returnees to their six-man recruiting class, there’s even more reason to be excited about what the Thunderwolves could do on the court this season.
Lakehead’s impressive regular season has started to pay dividends on the recruiting trail. Head Coach Ryan Thomson and his staff have announced six recruits for the 2020-21 season, as of August 4th, and it’s a group that has a healthy mix of veteran experience and youthful exuberance.
The Thunderwolves have added three players with college or university experience in the United States, two of which are coming to Lakehead from Division I programs. On June 30th, Lakehead announced the commitments of both Dylan Morrison (Brampton, Ont.) and Michael Okafor (Toronto, Ont.), bolstering both the front and back court rotations in the process.
Morrison returns to Canada after most recently playing for the Lamar Cardinals in the Southland Conference. The 6’7” forward averaged 1.1 points and 1.1 rebounds per game over nine regular season appearances in the 2019-20 season. He also shot 37.5% from the field for a Lamar team that finished with a 17-15 record.
Against the UAB Blazers back on November 26th, Morrison racked up four points, three rebounds, and three blocks in 26 minutes of action.
Okafor comes to the Thunderwolves after transferring from the Manhattan Jaspers in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). The 6’4” guard averaged 1.5 points and 1.7 rebounds per contest for the 13-18 Jaspers, while appearing in 24 games.
On February 2nd against the Iona Gaels, Okafor went for a season-high five points and five rebounds in a 72-49 win.
Rounding out the three transfers with post-secondary experience is wing Jevon Westcarth (Ottawa, Ont.). The 6’6” wing makes the move to Thunder Bay and the Thunderwolves after a stint with the Jacksonville College Jaguars in the NJCAA. In 28 games last season, Westcarth averaged 5.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game while shooting 44.6% from the field.
The trio of Morrison, Okafor, and Westcarth are just a few of the players who have made the move back to Canada to finish their respective collegiate careers. All three bring with them a wealth of post-secondary experience, and they add size and depth up and down the Lakehead roster on both ends of the floor.
Rounding out the six-man recruiting class are three high school recruits. Guard Chris Sagl (Oakville, Ont.) comes to the Thunderwolves from St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary. Wing Ethan Willmore (Thunder Bay, Ont.) will play for his hometown program after playing his high school basketball at St. Ignatius High. Last but not least, wing Nas Roberts (Toronto, Ont.) comes to Lakehead from Central Technical High.
If Lakehead’s recent track record is any indication, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if any of their true first-year student-athletes took on meaningful roles and saw big minutes from the start in 2020-21. Adding this six man recruiting class to an already talented core group of returnees leaves reason to be excited for Lakehead men’s basketball moving forward.
Looking back at where they were just two season ago, and comparing it to where they were at the end of last season, it’s been quite the turnaround for Head Coach Ryan Thomson and the Lakehead Thunderwolves. After their run of success at the start of the last decade, the program is hungry to regain their championship pedigree.
Last season was another massive step in the right direction. A seven-win improvement from the previous year has the Thunderwolves riding a big wave of momentum into the 2020-21 season. While it still remains to be seen as to what the season will actually look like, or if there will even be a 2020-21 basketball season, there’s a ton of optimism around this year’s edition of the Lakehead Thunderwolves.
They have a Head Coach who knows what it takes to win, especially at Lakehead University. They have a strong returning core that features six of their top seven scorers from last year’s 17-win team. Then, to top it all off, they have a strong six-man recruiting class that features a balance of veteran experience and youthful excitement.
Is that a recipe for success for the Thunderwolves? Only time will tell.
Be sure to bookmark our 2020-21 Season Previews page to keep up with the previews as they are released online.
– T. Bennett