Two steps backward, one step forward, is one way to describe the Stingers’ recent efforts at tournaments at Memorial and Saskatchewan universities. In both cases Concordia went 1-2, dropping their first two games before winning the finale. The Stingers are now 4-4 in pre-season play heading into a gruesome seven-game stretch in the U.S.
“We’ve been inconsistent, getting off to slow starts at both tournaments,” said captain Rastko Popovic. “I think we’re still getting used to playing with each other, and we’ve had to adjust to different starting lineups.”
Pre-season play is intended for lineup experimentation, but in Concordia’s case, a sprained ankle to the versatile Dwayne Buckley has forced the Stingers to adjust on the fly. Buckley’s injury, which has already sidelined him for five games, has opened the door for younger brother Damian and for sophomore Andre Johnny. Both have taken advantage.
“You always hope for opportunities like that during the season,” said the younger of the Buckley brothers. “I’m lucky that coach has shown confidence in having me carry the ball up court.”
“Damian has looked better each game,” said coach John Dore of his rookie point guard. In his first four starts Buckley has averaged 16.5 points per game, highlighted by a 21-point effort in the Stingers 100-88 win over Saskatchewan.
Patrick Perrotte, who leads all scorers with 17.2 ppg, also appreciates Damian’s early contributions. “He’s not only good to play with, but he’s very exciting to watch. He shares the ball well and he’s proven that he can play,” Perrotte said. “There are no special rules for veterans or rookies here. The best players are going to play, and he’s shown he’s been one of the best so far.”
Dwayne Buckley returned to the practice court on Monday, albeit with a noticeable limp. He is expected to return to action during the first leg of the Stingers’ U.S. trip- a trip the Stingers have been anticipating for months.
Four games in five nights might be reason enough for the Stingers to be pumped up. But add to that the fact that they’ll be playing against some of the top-ranked teams south of the border and the team can be forgiven for being slightly excited.
Concordia’s first trip to the U.S. this year includes stops in Rhode Island, Duke, Davidson and Georgia. In playing the Duke Blue Devils, Concordia will be up against the number one ranked team in the ESPN/USA Today pre-season poll released last week. The Stingers will not only have to deal with one of the best teams in the nation, but they’ll also have to deal with a hostile crowd. The last time a Duke home game was not sold out was in December 1990, and coach Dore doesn’t expect the streak to end this week.
“The Duke game should be sold out, and it should give our guys a great opportunity to compete at the highest level,” Dore said. “It won’t kill us, it can only make us stronger.”
Perrotte meantime realizes that he cannot be overwhelmed by the surroundings. “We’re going to be playing against stars, and I know there’s going to be a part of me that’s going to want to ask for an autograph. But I also know that once that ball is tipped, it’s a basketball game, and they’re going to come out and compete and we’re going to have to do the same.”
Duke is not only the pre-season favourite to capture the national title, but it is also the home of future NBA stars Sheldon Williams and J.J. Reddick, as well as hall-of-fame coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The Stingers return home late Sunday night, but then it’s back to the U.S. for three more games against Virginia, Connecticut and Vermont. The UConn Huskies rank second behind only Duke in the pre-season polls.
Concordia can at least say it falls in some elite company joining Indiana, Georgetown and St. John’s as the only college programs with scheduled games against the top two teams in the country.
The Stingers may find it difficult to keep up with the speed of the American schools, and Concordia expects to be the smaller team in all seven games. Still, coach Dore expects his team to benefit from the experience of playing better competition.