VANCOUVER — Watch the game long enough and you know that there are certain types of scenarios, which when presented on larger stages, like the postseason, often times have the potential to produce unexpected results.
As the Canada West playoffs get set to open for the U Sports No. 2-ranked UBC Thunderbirds, all of that is code for ‘Don’t sleep on the Manitoba Bisons’.
And as UBC head coach Kevin Hanson spoke to Varsity Letters on Tuesday following practice, in advance of Thursday’s best-of-three opener at War (7 p.m.), it’s clear that the ‘Birds know how dangerous a foe they will be facing.
You can’t question Manitoba’s chemistry and cohesion, and these visitors are being fueled by any number of scenarios from being road warriors, to being labeled underdogs by many, to being the team that was as close as anyone to beating the ‘Birds during the conference regular season.
“They are one of the oldest teams in the conference, and with all of that experience, their core group is able to make reads off of each other,” Hanson began of the Herd’s balance. “And they are really scary in transition, they capitalize on your mistakes really quickly and they have four guys that can really shoot and score.”
Yes, the ‘Birds finished the regular season at 19-1, and yes, Manitoba followed a ways down the table at 12-8.
But Hanson isn’t trying to be former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz talking up one of the team’s mid-80s clashes with a cupcake foe.
Throw everything into the hopper, from the RPI index which made this a No. 5 at No. 4 match-up, to the Bisons’ 10-2 finish after a 2-6 start, and this series has all the markings of a battle. And after their opening-weekend playoff sweep of Regina, the Herd is actually 12-2 over its past 14 games.
Consider, as well, that although it was three months ago, UBC’s wins over Manitoba, at War, were by scores of 96-89 and 75-72. Just the fact that the Bisons played in Vancouver this season is a bonus in their quest.
Said UBC’s Conor Morgan of Manitoba after the first game, one in which the ‘Birds built a 26-point lead five minutes into the second half, then watched that lead evaporate to few as four: “They should be ranked Top 10 in the country.”
What must the ‘Birds do to find success this weekend?
Stop the Bisons’ braintrust.
Four Manitoba players, all fourth- and fifth-year guard-types, averaged double-figures in scoring over the regular season led by Justus Alleyn (17.4 ppg) and including AJ Basi (13.6), Keith Omoerah (13.2) and Illarion Bonhomme (12.1).
Bonhomme, in the first game of his team’s November series with UBC, scored 31 points in 27 minutes, hitting five triples along the way.
“We played them three months ago and they’re a different team now and so are we,” said Hanson. “But it’s going to be a great series.”
Hanson wouldn’t go into details, but he did say that the hope is that both Morgan, the nation’s top scorer, and main rotation guard Phil Jalalpoor are healthy enough to go in Thursday’s series opener.
“Put it this way,” Hanson said, “we’re hoping that they will be ready to go. We will have, though, a couple of guys who will not be 100 per cent regardless. We’re hoping that everybody is ready to play.”
The coach continued to talk about the effect senior Will Ondrik has brought to the leadership group, and praised Jordan Jensen-Whyte and his “glue-guy positivity” throughout the week-plus of practice.
“Practice is often better than games and we have refined some of the tactics we use in games,” Hanson continued. “We wanted to keep everybody healthy, and having last weekend off really helped.”
Both Thursday and Friday games are set for 7 p.m. tip-offs, with a 7 p.m. tip-off for Saturday’s if-neccesary game.
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