What a difference a year can make.
The Western Mustangs men's basketball team hadn't recorded their fifth win of last season until Feb. 5. At the nine game mark of the 2016–17 season, the team was reeling at 1–8.
But this season has started off on an entirely different note. With a 70–63 win over York University on Friday and a 75–71 win over Queen's University on Saturday, the Mustangs sit at 5–4 on the year and are currently second place in the Ontario University Athletics West Division.
The program turnaround is a testament to the development of a team that was young and inexperienced last season, unable to close out games or play through tough stretches.
"It is very hard to win in our league with a young team," said Mustangs head coach Brad Campbell on his team's turnaround year so far. "Last year, we were very young and inexperienced, and we also completely overhauled the way we play. This year, our returning core is a year older, and with the addition of a few key new players, we have added good depth to our team."
The Mustangs have the mental toughness to win games that they would have lost last year. Both nail-biters against York and Queen's this weekend showed the fortitude this team has to be able dig deep late in games with a solid and technically-sound defensive effort.
Their development as a solid defensive unit, as well as a deep bench that allows Campbell to play situational basketball, has led to the Mustangs becoming a major player in the OUA's weak West Division.
Eriq Jenkins has been the catalyst for the Mustangs defensive development. He had nine steals against York and three more against Queen's, establishing himself as the OUA leader in steals.
On the offensive side of the ball, Jenkins led the Mustangs with 17 points against York, while Omar Shiddo added 16 and Marko Kovac, 13. On Saturday against Queen's, it was Kovac who provided the offensive spark, leading Western with 18 points out.
It's been offence by committee through the first nine games of the year for the Mustangs.
"Overall, when we are successful, it has been with a full team effort," said Campbell. "We do not have any superstars. We're at our best when multiple guys are in double figures for points, and we share the ball to produce the best shot."
The Mustangs success can also be attributed to transfers and recruits who have been valuable additions in their first season at Western.
Kovac has been versatile on both sides of the floor, as the Windsor Lancers' transfer is averaging 10 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Redshirt freshman Chris Clegg has been reliable at the five spot, anchoring the Mustangs' interior defence while putting up 10 points and 10 boards against Queen's on Saturday. And Henry Tan, a transfer from the Lakehead Thunderwolves, provides the quickness that Campbell desires in his fast-paced offensive system.
The Mustangs aren't a championship contender yet. But with wins against Ryerson, Windsor and Queen's under their belt, the Mustangs' program is on the rise. It's been a testament to the off-season development of the Mustangs athletes, as well as a coaching staff that has revamped their systems and brought in new talent to create one of the OUA's deepest lineups.