Newfound depth propels Stingers men’s basketball to new heights

Concordia records best regular season in over a decade

(left to right) Owen Sootjens, Karam Sahly and Louis-Vincent Gauvin celebrate a basket in their game against Laval on Jan. 20. Photo Alice Martin

Feb. 11, 2023: the darkest day of a difficult season for Concordia men’s basketball.

As McGill’s Sam Jenkins snatched the rebound off a missed three-pointer from the Stingers guard Alec Phaneuf, Concordia watched the final seconds of a 78-68 contest slowly tick away. 

A feeling all too familiar creeped its way in. In a grim reaper-like manner came the long, dreadful drone of the buzzer to add insult to injury. Body and mind depleted, the Stingers could only hang their heads as they made their way to the exits, leaving the John Dore Court faithful with feelings of emptiness. It was Concordia’s ninth consecutive defeat. Such a promising start became a season of questions more than answers.

A 5-0 start for the 2022-23 Stingers men’s basketball team became a final record of 7-9 and a fourth-place Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ) ranking, only one game above 6-10 McGill. They were then ousted by the Université du Québec à Montréal Citadins in the conference semifinals.

“There was no consistency, there was no rhythm. We didn’t know our identity as a team. We didn’t know what we needed to do to win,” recalled Stingers guard Sami Jahan.

Injuries plagued the team—most notably starting forward Tyrell Williams—as Alec Phaneuf was the only player to appear in all 16 games. 

But what a difference a year makes.

This season, the Stingers have been much healthier, bringing more stability to the team. Four starters—Phaneuf, Williams, guard Jaheem Joseph, newcomer big man Karam Sahly—and rookie guard Jordan Telfort have played every game. Jahan and guard Junior Mercy have only missed one game, and rookie centre Bradley Louidon has come off the bench in all but two contests.

Not only are the Stingers healthier, but the young players on the team have made major contributions. Mercy—in his second year, but his first with the Stingers—places fourth in the RSEQ at 1.7 steals per game. Sahly shot nearly 51 per cent from the field, and sits 14th in Quebec at 3.9 rebounds per game. Louidon and rookie forward Gabriel Bourdages are both top-five in the province in blocked shots per game. The Stingers’ abundance of options is the force behind their first-place 12-4 finish in the RSEQ in 2023-24, their strongest campaign in 12 years.

“This year, it’s a bit easier if we have one or two guys out of the lineup because we have other guys who can step in and play right away,” said head coach Rastko Popovic.

As a result, key starters, such as Jahan, have not been relied upon as heavily as last season. His 33.3 minutes per game in 2022-23 decreased to 27.9 minutes per game this season. 

“Over many games and many practices, your body starts to wear down and you can’t perform at the highest level when your body is breaking down on you, ” said Jahan, affirming that he is better able to make his minutes count this season. “Even those five less minutes a game this year can make a huge difference in the long run.”

Jahan has Mercy to thank for no longer being required to carry as heavy a load. Mercy acts as the understudy to Jahan and Phaneuf and often volunteers to take on tougher defensive assignments like guarding the opposing starting point guard to give his teammates a rest.

Mercy, who transferred to Concordia from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, has had to adapt to a more defensive role this season after being the go-to player for offence in the past. But he is happy to embrace it, knowing that it helps the team and that he gets his moments to shine, too. Even further, he feels privileged to play the part of a reliable defensive staple.

“Just having Sami and Alec as the two seniors for my position, knowing that I’m not necessarily here to go off for 30 [points]…[I’m] just embracing the role,” he said.

The feeling is mutual for Jahan, whose job is made much easier by Mercy’s mere presence and attitude on the court.

“When Junior is on the court, he’s a very selfless player. He wants to give you the ball. He wants to create [opportunities] for others, so it’s really easy to play with him,” Jahan said.

The depth on the roster has created internal competition now that there is always somebody ready to fill a role in case of injuries or subpar performances. It forces regular starters to remain motivated, but it also pushes the bench players even further to try to earn their spot.

“There’s no guarantee for anybody, and it helps the team overall if everyone is trying to do their best individually,” Jahan said.

But despite the healthy competition between players, the players on the team are very close with each other. Even with the many recent additions to the roster, the team still welcomes everybody with open arms.

“When new guys come in, we’re just like a family. There’s no beef [...] and we just get along really well,” said Joseph, who is in his first full season with the Stingers. 

The players get together as often as they can, whether it’s for food, drinks, a Super Bowl party, or simply hanging out. No matter what it is, there is only one rule: nobody goes alone. 

“Even if you don’t want to buy anything, just tag along. Somebody is always with somebody,” Mercy said.

Even with the addition of ten new players in 2023-24, the team remained tight-knit and their chemistry kept true. Having a healthy balance of rookies and veteran players allows the Stingers to maintain stability within the team.

“Even the vets that have been here for two, three years, they take the role of guiding us and just telling us what we do wrong so that Coach doesn’t have to scream too much,” Mercy said, chuckling.

The group huddles before their game against Laval. Photo Alice Martin

The cohesion between the veteran players and rookies on the team is different than in years past, according to Jahan. He feels that rookies were looked down upon and treated like kids in his early years, and that there was a separation between the rookies and veteran players.

But now, he believes that everybody on the team meshes well together. He finds the age similarity between many of the rookies and veterans helps blur the difference in experience.

“To this point, I don’t see much hierarchy. They’re treated very well,” he said. “I wouldn’t say there’s much difference.”

The Stingers are in prime position for their first U Sports Championships appearance since 2019. The road begins at John Dore Court for the RSEQ semifinal, where they will face the Laval Rouge et Or at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 28.

But even with the Stingers’ successful season, they are still set up for success in the future. The men’s basketball team does not have any graduating players this season, although Jahan is yet unsure if he will return for his fifth and final year of eligibility.

Regardless, the rookies will soon be ready to take the reins when the veteran players do eventually graduate, possibly as soon as next season.

“As a rookie, you get a lot better in your second year once you realize what it takes and you get a taste of the competition,” confirmed Jahan. “You realize what you have to do in the summer to improve. Our new guys are going to get a lot better.”