[Editor's note: The X-Men dropped their pre-season opener - 88-81 - to the Bishop's Gaiters. Freshmen Avan Nava and Dondre Reddick, an Antigonish native, led the X-Men with 20 and 18 points, respectively.]
An infusion of youth is one of the key ingredients for the St. F.X. X-Men as they prepare for another Atlantic University Sport (AUS) basketball regular season.
“We have added some important pieces to what was a good nucleus. We have improved in many areas, so we will see what happens,” head coach Steve Konchalski said in an interview a couple days before the Blue and White tipped off the pre-season.
Noting the youth of the X-Men last season, who lost in the opening round of the conference playoff tournament to the rival Cape Breton University Capers, he added “we are still young.”
The St. F.X. roster for this campaign includes nine student-athletes 19-years-old and younger.
“We are going to have some growing pains,” Konchalski said.
Nevertheless, although he expects the team to take a while “to develop and mesh,” the veteran bench boss expects his team “to compete for a championship.”
Considering the X-Men expect to have “plenty of firepower” on offense, Konchalski said a key area of focus in preparation for the AUS campaign is improvement on the defensive end.
“We have to have a mindset that we are going to be tough to score on,” he added.
Last season, the X-Men scored 81 points per game, but also surrendered 85 to their opponents.
“Game in, game out,” Konchalski noted, when talking about the level of commitment required to improve in this and other areas.
The recruiting class
The X-Men recruiting class includes Antigonish native Dondre Reddick, who Konchalski expects to make an impact “right away.”
“He is going to help us [win] now and he has a bright future ahead of him with our program,” the head coach said.
Amongst the elements he brings to the table – at 6’3” – is length at the two-guard position.
“We haven’t had one in a long time,” Konchalski said of adding a “bigger guard” to the line-up.
He also expects freshman point guard Avan Nava, who played for new associate coach and former X-Man Tyrell Vernon at TRC Academy, to make an immediate impact.
“Avan can really shoot it and he is a great ball handler and decision maker,” Konchalski said, noting Nava garnered MVP honours in the prestigious Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA) year-end tournament in 2019.
Freshman Jaxon Smith joins his older brother, Jaydan, on the X-Men roster.
“It will be a year of learning and adjustment,” Konchalski said of the Citadel High School graduate.
Describing him as “undersized,” at forward, where he played in high school, he added the younger Smith will be making the transition to a more perimeter role.
Konchalski said Sidney Okeke, a 6’7” transfer forward from Trinidad State Junior College, will provide physicality.
“He is type of player I call a space eater; he is a major addition for us,” he added, describing Okeke, who can “hit the three,” as a work in progress.
Freshman guard J.J. Sedore is just starting to practice after coming off knee surgery.
“We are looking forward to what he can bring to our team when he is 100 per cent,” Konchalski said.
Jack Pittman, a Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School graduate who redshirted last season, has “worked his way into the line-up.”
“Jack has put the work in,” Konchalski said.
He added Pittman provides a “great lesson” for players, noting his commitment and dedication to “working on his craft.”
“If every player worked as hard as Jack, we would be in great shape,” Konchalski said.
As for the returnees, he started with the backcourt trio of Justin Andrew, Thomas Legallais and Jaydan Smith, who will help “lead the way” for the young X-Men.
“He provides us with tremendous depth,” Konchalski said of Smith, a junior guard.
Andrew led the X-Men with just less than 16 points and 3.8 assists, while Legallais – a transfer from Mount Allison University – stepped up and provided “solid play” last season.
“We are looking for him to improve in his second AUS season, continue to provide that hard-nosed play he brought to our team last season,” Konchalski said of Legallais, who averaged just more than 10 points, along with four rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.
Up front, senior forward Azaro Roker – who Konchalski described as “our defensive anchor” – is back.
“Azaro is athletic, he is a leaper,” the veteran mentor said, noting Roker averaged close to a double-double last season, while leading the AUS in blocked shots, with 2.3 per game.
Roker also topped the loop in rebounding until the final game of the campaign.
Sophomore Atik Gilao, who earned a conference all-rookie team spot, averaged more than 10 points and 39 per cent from three-point land in the second half of his freshman season.
“He has put in the work and had a great summer,” Konchalski said.
He noted teams have a challenging time with Gilao, a stretch-4, who draws the defense outside because of his three-point shooting ability.
Forwards Jamie White and Michael Utsalo, with Konchalski describing the latter as “super athletic,” are also back for their second seasons.
“They will both benefit from having a year in the AUS under their belt and we expect them to have an increased roll this season,” he said.
Konchalski added another sophomore, Gayo Isaya – “a physical guard” – has “greatly improved” since the end of last season.
The X-Men opened the pre-season Oct. 4, versus the Bishop’s Gaiters at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School in Antigonish, with results unavailable at press time.
This weekend, the Blue and White will compete in the Calgary Invitational, tipping off against the host Dinos, UBC Thunderbirds and Mount Royal College.
The X-Men will host the UNB Reds Friday, Oct. 18, in a pre-season tilt, at 7 p.m.