For the first time in 19 seasons the men’s basketball team earned the National Championship title for VIU—and head coach Matt Kuzminski accomplished the feat in his very first attempt at the helm.
The Mariners qualified for the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) National Championship after a silver-medal performance at the PacWest Provincials in Feb. From there, VIU defeated Red Deer College, Sheridan College, and Holland College en-route to their first Nationals gold medal since the Malaspina University-College era.
“It’s pretty wild when you think about it like that,” Kuzminski says of the feat. He joined the team this season after serving as assistant coach at Dover Bay Secondary School and captaining Simon Fraser University as a player.
“I never tried to think too much of the expectations, or lack of expectations, but there were a lot of people who had doubt about what our team could do this year,” Kuzminski says. “We lost a lot of starters from last year, and for me being a first-year coach, could I coach the team?
“We just worked hard and we started our [hard work] almost this time last year when we started doing all our training, and to have it pay off with a national championship is pretty awesome.”
The tournament began with a comfortable 87–75 victory over Red Deer, highlighted by a 25-point performance by Ryan Davidson. The semifinal game was a nail-biter, which saw Sheridan erase VIU’s 17-point lead, but would eventually fall to the M’s 80–76. Brandon Jones led the way with 34 points in 40 minutes of action.
Kuzminski was happy with his team’s ability to prevail in a close game, after suffering a few disappointing losses by a narrow margin to Langara College this season.
“It was a really good test for us in that second game because for the first time this year we pulled out a game that was under five points,” Kuzminski says. “So I think that gave us a lot of confidence, and the next night against Holland [College] in a close game we felt like we’ve been here before and we could do it.”
The championship game against Holland was another close match, but VIU came up on top 77–70. Jones had another 34-point night and Tyler Olsen had a strong outing in his final game as a Mariner.
Despite it being the most significant game of his young coaching career, Kuzminski felt calm entering the final match, saying he was “probably the most confident [he’s] ever felt.”
Playing unfamiliar teams outside their conference benefited VIU as they entered each game with a clean slate and “no fear.” It also gave the coaching staff an opportunity to out-prepare their opposition by scouting their star players in between games.
Jones was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player and was soon after named PacWest Male Athlete of the Year.
“It’s been an incredible run for him,” says Kuzminski of Jones. “Last year he was maybe the third or fourth option, this year without question he was our leader and our best player. Down the stretch of the year there was a different focus about him, a real intensity in games, a strictly business kind of approach. When the game was on the line he wanted the ball, he asked for the ball, and he was able to deliver. He was huge for us.”
“Olsen and Davidson were also key players for the Mariners at Nationals,” Kuzminski says, as both players were named tournament All-Stars.
Davidson upped his game and allowed Kuzminski to give him extra minutes, taking pressure off the starters. Olsen rose to the occasion in his final chance at the national title before graduation.
“In his provincial final, the game we played against Langara was probably not his best game. He was disappointed with it, but was able to respond with a great tournament,” Kuzminski says. “He was a first-team All-Star and in that final game he controlled the game defensively, and he was able to score as well with 17 points. You can’t go out much better than that for the end of your career.”
Kuzminski was quick to say that the championship victory was a team effort and no player let the team down. He attributed much of the success to the Mariners’ alert defence all season. Even in matches when the offence wasn’t firing, the M’s defensive game gave them the opportunity to win.
He is also proud of the team for improving their offensive execution in close games, an area that likely helped VIU defeat Sheridan in the semifinal. “We kind of learned how the ball needed to move, and who needed to get the shot in situations—that just came with experience,” Kuzminski says.
Although the season has ended, Kuzminski is already recruiting for next season. He has a few new players on his radar and with most of the team returning next season the process should be lighter than normal. He hopes to defend the championship gold next season, but understands the challenges in his way.
“That will be the goal, to try to see if we can get back [to Nationals] again. Obviously, a lot of things need to happen right—you need to peak at the right time, you need to come together as a team,” Kuzminski says.
Until then, Kuzminski will prepare the Mariners the best he can for next season, beginning with an ID Camp next month. In the meantime he plans to focus on recruiting and hopes his March Madness bracket comes through—he predicts Ohio State going all the way.