The Mariners men’s basketball team passed the midway point of the season earlier this month, and is looking solid heading down the stretch to Provincials. VIU is second in the PacWest standings but there is still room for improvement, said head coach Matt Kuzminski.

“Some of our ball movement slows down late in the game when [the opposition] cranks up their defensive pressure,” Kuzminski says. “We just need to be able to stick with our system and run what we want to run in pressure situations.”

That improvement includes star players like Brandon Jones, Clayton Billet, and Tyler Olsen who have led the team all season. Kuzminski says Jones has areas to focus on as the team heads toward Provincials.

“Particularly down the stretch, [Jones] is a guy we rely on,” Kuzminski says. “So for him, it’s trying to find how he can close games a little better and [improve] decision making down the stretch. It’s not necessarily bad, but he has to find a way to get us some shots that we want.

“There’s a lot of pressure on him and there’s a lot of expectations on him, but that’s kind of the shoes he’s in. You want to be in a big role, that’s the way it goes.”

The Mariners started the second half with a 75–60 victory over rivals Camosun College on Jan. 4. Jones and Billet combined for over half the team’s points.

VIU finished their seven-game home stand the next weekend with games against Douglas College and Langara College. The M’s defeated Douglas in a lopsided 72–38 game that had several Royals players sidelined with suspensions.

In their next game, VIU lost a hard fought match to first-place Langara 73–67. Despite the loss, Kuzminski was satisfied with his team’s effort.

“The second night was a very competitive game against the team who is number one in Canada,” Kuzminski says. “They were obviously a good challenge and our guys played really well, played really hard, but just couldn’t get it done.

“They haven’t lost all year and they beat us now in both games by six points. But all those games we’ve had our chances and we’ve been right there, so it’s some execution things with offense that I think we can improve on.”

While the Mariners hope to defeat Langara when the two teams meet in week 10, Kuzminski doesn’t want his team focusing too much retaking first place.

“Every weekend we try to focus game-by-game, instead of looking ahead and saying we want to finish with this record or finish with this place,” Kuzminski says. “It’s more of what we can do this coming Friday to get a win, what can we do in practice to get better.”

Kuzminski does have long-term hopes for the Mariners in his first season at the helm, however. “Ultimately our end-of-season goal is just to make the national tournament and see how we can do from there. We’ve put ourselves in a good position so far but anything can happen out of Provincials.”

For now VIU will prepare for its road matches against Columbia Bible College (CBC) and Kwantlen University on Jan. 25–26. Kwantlen narrowly defeated the Mariners 74–72 in their final game before Christmas, when the Eagles’ masterful zone defense proved to be a challenge.

VIU hopes to have some injured players back in the lineup for those matches. Starting point guard Jon Bethel has been sidelined since before Christmas with a foot injury and Jess Black has been out with an injured hamstring.

The Mariners next home games are the final regular season matches, slated for Feb. 15–16. They will feature rematches against CBC and Kwantlen before the M’s head off to the Provincial championships.