The Master’s University men’s basketball team will recognize its opponent in Thursday night’s home opener, the Mustangs rekindling an old conference rivalry before what’s expected to be a capacity crowd. And, you too might recognize the visiting team, or at least two key contributors with Santa Clarita Valley ties. The Mustangs, almost a sure bet to open the season in the top five of the NAIA’s national rankings, will host Azusa Pacific University for an exhibition game at 8 p.m. The Cougars, who feature Canyon High grads Selom Mawugbe and Ben Taufahema, transitioned from the Golden State Athletic Conference and the NAIA to the NCAA Division 2 ranks a handful of years ago. But that hasn’t kept the Cougars and Master’s from reuniting on a fairly regular basis. The teams played an exhibition last season, with TMU turning a three-point halftime lead into a comfortable 12-point win at APU. “To play them again at our home with our crowd is exciting,” said junior guard Darryl McDowell-White, a Fresno State transfer. This year’s game is expected to be closer, with Mawugbe and Taufahema likely making an impact for the Cougars, if to varying degrees. Taufahema averaged 4.3 points a game last season and made 35% of his three-point shots. Mawugbe is coming off a breakout sophomore season. The 6-foot-10 forward started all 32 games for a Cougars team that won 21 of them and advanced to the second round of the Division 2 national tournament. He blocked a single-season school record 89 shots and presents an intriguing matchup for TMU’s own 6-10 center, Tim Soares. A year ago, Soares set a new mark at Master’s for blocks in a season (90, oddly enough), and he’ll again anchor a Mustang defense that hopes to be more-consistently stingy. Master’s went 29-3 and reached a No. 1 ranking in the NAIA top 25 for the first time in program history a year ago largely behind an explosive offensive attack that averaged 93 points a game – third most in the country. The Mustangs return four starters and nine veterans in all for 2018-19, highlighted by two NAIA All-Americans: Soares and point guard Hansel Atencia. Atencia averaged 18 points a game for the Colombian Senior National Team over the summer, playing against former NBA players at times. Guard Delewis Johnson and forward Brock Gardner also have All-American potential. Azusa Pacific should provide a tall test as to where the Mustangs stand to open the season. But Master’s believes it’s ready for the challenge. “I think it’s going to be a really close game,” said Johnson, who averaged nine points and five rebounds last year and has emerged as a leader of this group. “You might call it a powerhouse matchup in the beginning of the year.” It won’t get any easier for TMU. At least not in the early going. Master’s will travel to play NCAA Division 2 Concordia University Irvine in another exhibition Saturday before trekking to Texas to play LSU Alexandria and LSU Shreveport at a tournament on Nov. 1 and 2. Both teams are expected to open the season in the top 15 of NAIA rankings. Tickets General admission is $8. Students from institutions other than Master’s are admitted for $3 with a valid school ID. Family passes, which provide access for your immediate family members to all of TMU’s sporting events, can be purchased for $125. For more information on The Master’s University Athletics, visit GoMustangs.com.