The College of the Canyons men’s basketball team began preparing for the 2019-20 season with a noticeable difference in attitude and approach, according to head coach Howard Fisher.
“I think when we started in the summer, after the first day, there was just a difference,” he said. “The air that they were breathing was different and they didn’t want to endure the 10-point losses that they had last year.”
Canyons finished the 2018-19 season 14-14 overall and the WSC, South Division runner-up with a 5-3 conference record. Of the 14 losses that the Cougars finished the season with, nine of them were double-digit losses.
No one knows exactly what Fisher is talking about better than returning sophomores Zach Phipps, Jordan Nash and Jah-Kez Moore who ranked second, fifth and ninth on the team in minutes played, respectively, a year ago.
All three of them have made great strides in the midst of playing their final season for Canyons and each of them is leading the team in scoring, rebounds and assists per game.
“It’s just coming in and grinding every single day,” Phipps said. “The season is long and you have to come in and work every single day. Our goal is to get 1% better each day. If we are doing that, we are going to be big.”
Phipps has elevated his scoring and leads the Cougars through the first nine games averaging 17 points per game after averaging 14.3 points at the end of last season. Phipps has finished in double figures in every game this year and has scored 20 or more points on three occasions.
Although Phipps leads the team in scoring, freshman guard Christopher Bradford has hit the ground running thanks to his athleticism and shooting ability. He sits behind the sophomore in scoring, averaging 16 points a game.
“Getting here and playing with some new guys that I now call my brothers, it feels good,” Bradford said. “I just come out and leave everything out on the floor. Just knock out everything else and come in and play.”
“For our level, he brings a uniqueness to the point guard position because of his length and athleticism,” Fisher said of Bradford. “He’s able to get a rebound and push the ball without having to throw an outlet pass, he’s extremely athletic and has a great attitude.”
Nash, who missed 10 games last year, admits that he might have come back from the injury a little too early, but is now fully healed and the results have paid off.
The sophomore guard leads the team in assists (5.6 per game) and has seen the biggest scoring differential from a year ago (6.4 points) and is averaging almost eight points per game more this season (14.1 points).
Moore is the only returning “big” from last year and is playing an even bigger role on this year’s team. Moore leads the Cougars averaging 7.2 rebounds per game, but it’s his scoring that has team excited.
Shooting 42.9% from the floor, Moore has put in countless hours on his shot and seems to be more confident this year, averaging 10.2 points per game.
“He comes in early every day, is on campus around 7 or 7:30 every morning and finds a way to get in the gym and shoot the ball,” Fisher said. He finds ways to get extra shots up and work on his game.”
One luxury that the Cougars have been enjoying this season is their newfound height, something that was lacking last season.
With the departure of their “true big” Anthony Simone, due to graduation, Moore was the tallest Cougar on the roster standing at 6-foot-5. That all changed with the arrivals of freshmen –– guard Micheal Davidson (6-foot-5) and forwards Virgil Mahoney (6-foot-6) and Isaiah Washington (6-foot-8) –– the team now has six players that are 6-foot-4 or taller.
“I think the expectation is that we are going to rebound better and more,” Fisher said. “It’s an area of focus for us and we have size that’s not necessarily pure-post play. The 6-4’s, the 6-5’s are very talented perimeter players so we are playing a little bit more uptempo, shooting a little bit more from the 3-point line.”
Sophomore Robert Hunter, a transfer from Cal Lutheran, adds strength and physicality with his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame.
Beginning the season with two wins against Cuyamaca and Oxnard, the Cougars have been plagued with a rash of injuries and have since won three of the last seven games, winning the last two of three games by double digits.
The Cougars have had their share of bumps and bruises to begin the season, but look to be enjoying themselves as a collective unit.
“Everyone is happy to be here and that’s kind of hard to do for the whole season,” Nash said. “Just guys staying positive throughout the ups and downs of the season because it gets long.”
The team will play Orange Coast College at 4 p.m. in the Cougar Holiday Classic at The Master’s University on Friday, Dec. 27.