VANCOUVER — The eight remaining Canada West men’s basketball teams have no margin for error under the conference’s new and radically-revamped playoff system.
Yet with this coming weekend’s bevy of single-elimination quarter- and semi-final games replacing the time-honoured and physically demanding best-of-three rounds previously in place, is this perhaps the starting point for Canada West teams to stay fresher longer, and enter the U Sports’ Final 8 national championship bracket more ready to compete against the best of the rest of the nation?
UBC head coach Kevin Hanson, freshly minted as the conference’s all-time regular-season wins leader, is well aware of the fact that the new format brings an amplified intensity to this weekend’s proceedings, including his 16-4 team’s Friday 5:30 p.m. quarterfinal at the University of Calgary against the Saskatchewan Huskies (12-8).
Yet Hanson added that the trade-off for those teams able to navigate the waters of sudden-elimination play, was the opportunity to advance to the U Sports Final 8 national tournament less compromised through the physical and mental battle that comes from having to play two rounds of multiple-game series.
First, to set the full scene, the UBC-Saskatchewan quarterfinal will comprise one half of the action at Calgary. The second game (7:30 p.m.) will see the host Dinos (18-2) clash with Abbotsford’s Fraser Valley Cascades (13-7).
On Saturday, the two winners will meet in a conference semifinal clash at 6 p.m.
Also Saturday, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Manitoba (16-4) faces Victoria (15-5) at 11 a.m., and Alberta (19-1) hosts Lethbridge (10-10) at 1 p.m. in another pair of sudden-elimination games. The two winners meeting in a Sunday semifinal (1 p.m.).
All of that might sound pretty standard if you follow the single-elimination playoff format in play at virtually every other college circuit on the continent.
Yet for the past number of seasons, the Canada West has employed those best-of-three conference quarterfinal and semifinal series, and last season, as a perfect example, UBC was pushed to the max in both, and thus had to play six games before they eventually lost to national finalist Calgary in the single-game Canada West championship final.
That single-game conference final remains in play this season, yet simple math tells you that under the new format, UBC can arrive back at the same place as last season by winning just two games, not the six.
It’s less wear and tear, but it’s also a lot less forgiving if you don’t bring your best to the opening tip.
Still, Hanson makes a solid argument while referencing a past conversation with his former assistant coach Randy Nohr, the ex-Aldergrove prep star whom he later coached at Langara, and who would go on to earn CIS national MVP awards in back-to-back seasons after leading St. FX to national titles in both 2000 and 2001.
“I think in the Canada West, where you’re always playing those (regular season) back-to-back games where either way, there seems to be one close game and one blow-out either way, and then you play those best-of-threes in the playoffs, all of the (Canada West) teams get so banged up by the time they get to nationals,” began Hanson.
“When Randy Nohr was coaching with me, he would talk to me about the style they played (in Atlantic University Sports), where they had a six-team single-knockout tournament,” Hanson continued, “and he always felt that that format prepared you better for nationals.
“When you have to win all of these playoff series first, it’s a lot harder when you get to nationals and the format changes, and all of a sudden there is a completely different mindset,” continued Hanson of the Final 8’s more traditional single-game sudden-death format.
Since Victoria’s national title in 1997, Canada West teams have won just three of the subsequent 22 national titles.
As simple as it all sounds, maybe playing fewer playoff games is the X factor which begins to put the nation’s largest conference back on the right path to becoming more representative at the Final 8.
Still, there are certainly some unusual circumstances that come with the new format.
For instance, UBC and Manitoba, the third- and fourth-place teams during the regular season, fashioned 16-4 records, yet it would take some rather large upsets this coming weekend for UBC to have a shot at hosting a playoff game on its own floor, in front of its own fans.
“There’s pros and cons to the best-of-three, and the single knockout style,” said Hanson. “It’s strange when you finish third in 17-team league and you don’t host a playoff game. But I kind of like it, because for some odd reason, we seem to be playing better on the road.”
The ‘Birds, in fact, went 9-1 in the conference this past season away from the confines of War Memorial Gymnasium, and that’s coming off last season in which they went 6-2 away from home in the regular season.
Yet there is also the matter of not having played Saskatchewan since the two teams split a pair at War in late October of 2018 to open the 2018-19 conference season.
“Looking back on those games, both teams have lost some players, but the chunks are basically the same for both,” said Hanson. “I think we’re going to see a team which plays aggressive with their post guys, is very good at getting offensive rebounds and loves to push it in transition. You have to match their toughness and not get bullied off the ball.”
Fifth-year guard JT Robinson (18.6 ppg), third-year Alex Dewar (17.6 ppg) and fourth-year Emmanuel Akintunde (13.7 ppg) are the team’s three top scorers. Kessler Bishop and Max Amoafo bring plenty of inside presence, and Abbotsford native Noah Nickel provides near double-digit scoring (9.9 ppg) off the bench.
Yet UBC’s key veterans seem ready to deliver in the big-game atmosphere.
Third-year 6-foot-10 forward Grant Shephard will look to set a tone in the paint, and Hanson loves the way the former Kelowna Owl has added new layers to his game.
“It’s a big weekend for Shep,” said Hanson of Shephard who is averaging 14.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. “Since January, he’s become a very good passer out of the double teams. In the past, he’d try to bully his way through them, but now he’s looking to make that pass and he’s really embraced that aspect of his game.”
Indeed, 17 of his 37 assists this season have come over his past six games.
And of course there is fifth-year senior Jadon Cohee, the former Walnut Grove star, who is averaging a team-leading 19.8 ppg, and in the regular season-ending series sweep of Winnipeg, averaged 25.5 ppg.
“We just had a meeting, just to make sure they are all in a good place, and he is ready,” confirmed Hanson of Cohee. “He excels in big games, so this weekend, he just has to be himself.”
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