Canada has become a hotbed for college recruiting, and it has extended to the Division II level now. Head coach Brett Weiberg and Western have jumped on the trend, as well.
Aaron Emmanuel and Kevin Thomas have been friends since they were kids growing up in Toronto, and now they are continuing their friendship in St. Joseph.
“It means a lot, it means the world,” Emmanuel said. “We grew up together. Having someone that lives literally next door to me in the same city, and now all the way out here in Missouri, couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Emmanuel provides Western with a playmaker at the point guard position. His 6-2 frame gives the Griffons great size at the spot, as well.
The Griffons’ lead guard gets to live out a childhood dream that many players hope can happen, but very few get the chance to live out.
“We have known each other since the fifth grade,” Emmanuel said. “I recruited Kevin here.”
He gets to play with a childhood friend and AAU teammate at the collegiate level.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” Thomas said. “It’s a good experience to play with my boy, Aaron.”
Kevin Thomas serves as the perfect compliment to Emmanuel, with Thomas being an offensive-minded post player, while Emmanuel is a pass-first lead guard.
“It makes the world more easy,” Emmanuel said. “We have that relationship on and off the court. We are able to bond and lead the other guys.”
Thomas was the Griffons second leading scorer last season, after former-Griffon star Cortrez Colbert, with 8.6 points per game.
“(Colbert) played a big role on the team last year, being a senior,” Thomas said. “This year, I’m trying to do the same thing.”
Thomas is the perfect big man for the system that Weiberg employs with his ability to run the floor and handle the ball well for a big.
“I’m a fast-paced guard, so being able to push the ball with bigs that can run makes us that much harder to guard,” Emmanuel said.
While Emmanuel struggled with his shooting stroke last season, he excelled with his assist-to-turnover ratio with 81 assists to just 59 turnovers.
While Thomas is an ideal frontcourt pairing for the Griffon point guard, Cole Clearman provides that in the backcourt.
“It makes my job easy,” Emmanuel said. “As long as I’m able to do what I do best, get in the paint and pass, all they got to do is knock down their shots.”
Of Clearman’s 188 shot attempts last season, 144 of them were from three-point range. He hit 34 percent of those attempts. Clearman made more than twice as many threes as his next closest teammate.
Overall, Clearman averaged 7.9 points per game while only starting in 15 games.
Currie Byrd provides the team with yet another threat from beyond the arc.
Over a third of Byrd’s field goal attempts came from long range, and with his 6-7 frame, he provides Western with a stretch-four option off the bench.
Another key bench returner is Seth Bonifas. While Byrd is more of a bench shooter; Bonifas provides the bulk for the Griffons when Thomas needs a rest. Bonifas is one of the keys for Weiberg for the season and Bonifas will be a big part of that.
“We have to be a smart offensive rebounding team,” Weiberg said.
The 6-9, 235-pound sophomore made 54 percent of his shots, with a majority of those coming from close range.
Wes Mitter will again resume his role as Emmanuel’s backup. Mitter gives the Griffons’ more floor spacing after he shot 33 percent from behind the arc.
Mitter, like Emmanuel, finished with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio in limited duty.
Weiberg didn’t just sit on his six returning rotation players, as he hit the recruiting trail hard looking for new Griffons to add to the squad.
“I love our new group,” Emmanuel said.
One catch that Weiberg is very excited about is Trey Sampson.
The transfer from Des Moines Area Community College has a chance to make an immediate impact for the Griffons by filling in a major hole for the Griffons on the wing.
While Sampson is an athletic guard, the junior has made the biggest impression on his teammates with his long-range shooting ability. He made 81 threes last season for DMACC.
“Trey really brings perimeter shooting, defense and high energy,” Emmanuel said.
The other big addition for Western is also coming from an Iowa JUCO, but Mataika Koyamainavure’s story extends a lot farther than that. He is originally from Raiwaga, Fiji.
“Mataika is probably going to be starting beside (Thomas),” Emmanuel said. “He brings another presence that we need.”
The 6-8 forward from joins his sister Miliakere at Western. Miliakere was a starter last season for the women’s team and finished the season as their leading rebounder.
Mataika will be counted on to make a similar impact for the men’s team.
With all the new players, it is important for the team to stay in the moment.
“I want to tell these new guys, ‘It is one game at a time’ and if we go with that mindset we’ll be fine in the end,” Emmanuel said.
The Griffon journey starts on Friday against Wayne State as Western hosts the Hillyard Tip-off Classic.