Core group heading into third season together, ready to lead Griffins' quest for a playoff spot

Milan Jaksic (second from left) discusses a play with teammates during a non conference game against Regina last month. MacEwan opens the season against Mount Royal on Friday (Railene Hooper photo).
Milan Jaksic (second from left) discusses a play with teammates during a non conference game against Regina last month. MacEwan opens the season against Mount Royal on Friday (Railene Hooper photo).

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – With their chemistry percolating and growing over the past two years, the core group of leaders on the Griffins men's basketball team are primed to lead MacEwan's challenge for a playoff spot this season.

Captains Milan Jaksic, Job Janda and Matthew Osunde will be forefront in the squad's quest to crack the top 12 in Canada West, while an influx of talented newcomers give rise to optimism for a team that went 0-20 a year ago.

"We've been building for the last two years in the leadership group," said Jaksic. "We've built some chemistry up. We plan on just motivating the team and leading them to winning. MacEwan's been struggling with that. The last two years, all the work we've put in, I feel like this is the year we can do something."

It all starts this weekend as the Griffins kick off the season vs. Mount Royal University on Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (4 p.m., both David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV).

Tickets for Saturday's game are free as part of MacEwan's Open House celebration, but you can purchase tickets for Friday's game HERE.

"I think they're very excited (to get going)," said Griffins head coach Mike Connolly. "This week, we've had a great week of practice and preparation."

Some off-season injuries have hampered the Griffins' efforts over the past two months with anywhere from 8-11 guys at practices, instead of the full 15-man roster.

"We should have our full returning eight guys ready to go next week, so that's a huge advantage for us," said Connolly. "We just have to fight through the storm right now. 

"Five or six wins will get us into the playoffs. That's what we have to do, and we have 20 games to do that."

Matthew Osunde led the Griffins in minutes, points, rebounds, assists and steals in 2022-23 and will again factor big into their efforts this season (Railene Hooper photo).

Jaksic, Janda and Osunde are among six third-year players ready to take the next step. They're having fun, growing together, and learning how to work together on the court. 

"I personally think it's very important, especially because we were younger when we came in," said Jaksic of the chemistry they've been building. "Being older, it's a bit different. Everyone has more experience, ready to play more minutes. 

"I think chemistry is very important, so we can learn how to play with each other and learn each other's playing styles. That's how we can become a winning team."

Connolly is already seeing much needed growth and maturity in the group.

"Last year was a big year for them being in the fire having to go through adversity and losing close games, getting beat and just growing and learning," he said. "This is a year we should start to see some improvement. 

"The kids have been working hard in the off-season. We're still growing, we've got lots of season to go. As we get people back, get our chemistry and get people going on the floor, I think there will be some fun times."

A solid group of new additions have injected talent, energy, and optimism into the group, as well. Led by University of Windsor transfer Justace Byam, the newcomers each brings something special to the roster.

University of Windsor transfer Justace Byam gives the Griffins a true point guard (Railene Hooper photo).

"Justace, a transfer from Windsor, is a true point guard and has made a big difference in our offence," said Connolly. "He's only played in two games so far. He's still getting into the swing of it, but when he plays with our starters, he gets it going and he gets those guys going. 

"He brings that true point guard experience, which allows Matty (Osunde) to shoot the ball and score more. We needed a true point guard who is a pass-first organizer and that's what he does. That's definitely helped us the way we play."

Jaksic can't wait to see it all come together, starting this weekend.

"This is the year we've been planning to do something different, trying to prove people wrong," he said. "This weekend, I feel we have a good chance of winning. We've been preparing since August – practising together, working out together, doing other stuff off the court together. Just building that chemistry. Everyone's excited to play. But then again, it's another game – no one's nervous or too excited, we're just ready to play. 

"We're ready to show what we've been doing the last couple months and last two years, just playing together."