If we’ve learned anything in this series, it’s that building a program is hard. Much like last edition’s Greg Francis at Ontario Tech, Windsor’s now second year coach in Chris Cheng, has seen it at its absolute hardest.
Cheng was the inaugural coach at Nipissing and as expected, learned a lot about what it takes to build something in the OUA. Now in his second year at Windsor, Cheng is able to implement what he learned in North Bay but this time at a program with a long history of success in the conference.
“Comparing my first year at Nipissing to this past season at Windsor, I had some veteran guys to rely on where they actually taught me,” said Cheng. “I took the approach at Windsor, I wasn’t just totally getting them to adjust to me, I was trying to really adjust to them as well and meet them in the middle.”
That belief in adaptability and understanding who he’s working with individually stems back to even before he was a coach. Cheng has a sociology and education degree from York and actually worked as an elementary school teacher prior to coaching.
Since entering the ranks of coaching though, he’s worked at his alma-matter at York, Humber, Nipissing of course and has years of experience with Canada Basketball as well. Those previous stops instilled him an understanding that in year one, it isn’t as much about the x’s and o’s at a new program but in building long-lasting relationships with the players and people who can help you build something special.
“It wasn’t really about systems, it wasn’t about how we’re going to play ball screens it was how am I going to coach them,” Cheng said. “How am I going to connect with them because if I’m going to change or re-vamp this culture to the way I envision it to be, well I’ve got to get them to understand who they are and who I am and lead that way first and foremost.”
The strategy worked as the team won an extra four games from the season prior and returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus.
One of the key catalysts was Thomas Kennedy, a player Cheng really got to know on the Canadian under-19 team in the summer before the season. For Kennedy, Windsor basketball has a deeper connection than most thanks to the time he spent around it growing up because of his dad being an alumni of the program.
“Him and I sat down every day and we talked about Windsor basketball and he gave me his perspective on Windsor basketball because he grew up watching,” Cheng said of their summer abroad in Greece before the season. Kennedy used that experience against some of the world’s best competition to build off an OUA-All Rookie campaign with a third team all-star performance last season that saw him lead the conference in rebounds per game.
Kennedy is the kind of great player you can build something around, and Cheng is well aware.
“You just hope that your great player is also a great teammate and is also a great follower and a great leader and exemplifies everything that you’re trying to build and how you’re trying to do things. Thomas Kennedy exemplifies all of that,” said Cheng.
The fact a player on the level of Kennedy would choose Windsor is indicative of the type of ceiling the program has. Since 2007, the Lancers have made three Final 8 appearances and Cheng is of the belief his new regime is the one to repeat that success.
To get there, he has three pillars to his plan for long term success for the Lancers.
“I think it comes down to recruiting,” Cheng said. “As the head coach that’s kind of where it starts and where it ends to be honest… If you don’t recruit and find talent and character that comes with the talent, it’s really hard to stay competitive.”
As blunt as it may sound, it’s hard to disagree with him. That said, it’s great to have a class like the one they’re bringing in with nine members he’s excited about but, just getting them and future classes to the school is only the beginning.
As great as x’s and o’s are and as talented as some players come into U Sports today, there still often times can be a gap between what a player is capable of executing early on and what a coach is looking to do. That’s why Cheng from day one stresses a unique level of skill development for his young players.
“What the plan is, long term when they get into their second, third and fourth year, those skills become more refined and more mastered and now you’re able to add strategies and tactics,” Cheng said. “You can have all the great offensive strategics and tactics and defensive strategy and tactics in the world but at the end of the day, they have to be able to execute both mentally and physically.”
Unlike the NCAA with four years of on court eligibility, U Sports has five and Cheng is well aware of the added advantage of time at the level.
“Over five years, anything can happen,” said Cheng. “If you focus on the players skill development, it’s going to make your program consistent.”
That long term program consistency and commitment to the values of a school can help tie together generations of the past with the current players of a program.
Alumni and Community Engagement
“At Windsor, we have a really rich tradition of Lancer’s men’s basketball that dates back to before the school was the University of Windsor, it was Assumption College back in the 1960’s,” said Cheng. “We’ve got to honour the people that built this program.”
The great thing about attending a school like Windsor is once you go, you’re a Lancer forever. That type of familial atmosphere is something Cheng really wants to draw on in his time at the school. Going to the right university can open doors for you long after you move on from the game and that’s something Cheng wants his players to be able to take advantage of, “not only from a financial standpoint but, from a mentorship standpoint.”
He wants Windsor to be the type of school where his players are put in the opportunity of, “having the success of our alumni to what they’re able to do with their own careers, let’s get them to mentor our student-athletes.”
Cheng has high expectations but after what he saw in building a brand-new program from scratch, it’s understandable. In theory, Windsor should be the type of place high-level success is possible. In the OUA though, no coach is going to just hand you the conference title. It comes down to an ability to constantly improve across the board as a program.
Cheng sees the work he and his staff put in in the offseason as a unique separating factor between them and other schools.
“I can’t really put total onus on my players and say you have to get better, you have to do this so we can win,” Cheng explained. “I have to also better myself. If I don’t better myself both professionally, personally, I can’t hold them to the same standard.”
He’s not the type of coach to shy away from working to improve. Maybe it comes from his teaching background, maybe it comes from his longtime in the coaching ranks, who knows? What is for certain is Cheng has a belief that if he continues to improve and find new ways to grow the culture at Windsor, the Lancers should be well on their way back to the top of the OUA.
|Segun Akinbulumo||Northstar Prep||Post||Winnipeg, MB|
Coach’s Scouting Report: He’s a big boy. 7’4, 7’5 wingspan, soft touch around the rim. Has a knack for the rebound. He is going to take some time. Definitely going to be some change to his body, he’s aware of it and he’s motivated by it.
|Brayden Amlin||St. Anne High||Guard||Tecumseh, ON|
Coach’s Scouting Report: Brayden is one of the best shooters in the city. Shooting is his strength; he allows us to stretch the floor. He will take some time from a physical standpoint.
|Lorenzo Barbieri||Lincoln Prep||Guard||Brampton, ON|
Coach’s Scouting Report: He’s a great kid. I love his toughness on defence, I love his creatability on offence. He’s a competitor. He’s someone that we’re looking to have an immediate impact to our competition level.
|Ziphion Grant||Thornlea Secondary, Southwest Academy||Guard||Vaughn, ON|
Coach’s Scouting Report: Ziphion definitely adds to our athleticism, our defensive presence on the perimeter. It’s not every day you have someone with the type of athleticism and skills coming right out of high school as Ziphion.
|Ben Mascarenhas||St. Benedict Secondary||Guard||Cambridge, ON|
Coach’s Scouting Report: Ben’s a great shooter. He’s familiar with post-secondary level and post-secondary skills and his greatest contribution is shooting.
|Isaiah Mayambu||Assumption Secondary||Guard||Burlington, ON|
Coach’s Scouting Report: Isaiah is one of those sleepers where he can score in bunches. He has a passion to defend which is great. He’s a playmaker, he’s someone we’re hoping in our years with us he’ll emerge into one of our key scorers.
|Anthony Mensah||Thornlea Secondary (Central Wyoming)||Forward||Brampton, ON|
Coach’s Scouting Report: He’s the type of forward that we needed to complement our current forwards. He’s long, he’s athletic, he finishes well around the rim. He kind of fits the bill in terms of the skillset, the personality and the experience he’s coming from to help us.
|Jalen Sykes||Consortium College Prep (St. Clair College, Macomb College)||Guard||Detroit, MI|
Coach’s Scouting Report: He’s an ultimate scorer. He’s athletic. Can play multiple positions because of his skillset and ability to create for others.
|Terence Williams||Mott College||Guard||Windsor, ON|
Coach’s Scouting Report: Terence really helps with our defence in terms of guarding those guard positions. He’s able to shoot, pressure the paint.