Thursday, 8 March 2007

Game Day: AUS Tournament Preview

AUS Tournament Preview The City of Halifax begins an 11 day CIS basketball odessey tonight with two quarter-final games of the AUS tournament at the Metro Center. By late Friday night, the AUS will have determined their two Final Eight participants and the AUS champion, and higher AUS seed at the Nationals, will be crowned on Saturday night. Fast forward a few days and the All-Canadian awards banquet followed by next Friday's CIS Nationals First Round. It's tournament time!!

#1 seeded Cape Breton CAPERS clinched first place and one of the two first-round byes in the tournament about 3 weeks ago and this veteran group is poised for a return to the Nationals. After a couple of disappointing seasons when the CAPERS had the #2 seed in the tournament and then stumbled short of the Nationals, Cape Breton broke through last season, defeating St.Mary's to get to the Final 10 and then knocked off Ontario West finalist Laurier and highly-touted Canada West champs UBC on successive nights before bowing out late against to lose by 11 to eventual-winner Carleton in a solid game in the National semi-finals. This is a veteran group (four fifth-year seniors, two fourth-year seniors in the main rotation) with a solid point guard in 6'1" Ryan Keliher, perimeter shooting from 6'5" Paul Blake, a slasher who can get to the rim and defend in 6'2" Corey Hargrove, a solid, athletic big man who can score in 6'5" Eric Breland plus a pair of solid big men who defend and rebound in 6'10" Dan White and 6'9" Jarrett Timmons. Off the bench, 6'4" rookie Philip N'kruma has flashed his brillant athletic ability and is Cape Breton's emerging star of the future. The Capers love to get out in transition and follow the lead of point guard Keliher who is crafty when using screens, can knock shots down and is a solid draw and kick guy who can create off the dribble. Blake has had several big shooting games from 3 point land while Hargrove is a perfect complement to Blake on the wing. Breland finds ways to score inside against bigger opponents and the other 2 forwards make room for Breland and get on the glass. This is a team that has matured over the past 3 seasons, bounced back from big losses and had a great run last season at the Nationals. With experience, depth, athleticism and talent, Cape Breton has all the tools to capture their first AUS championship since the early 90's and represent Atlantic Canada formidably at the Final Eight.

With the high player turnover from last season and five new freshmen in the lineup, Coach Steve Konchalski's #2 seeded St. FX X-Men hit a bump in their play toward the end of January saw their 8 year run as the #1 seed in the tournament end this season. However, with a late push led by their 3 proven veterans in 6'10" fifth-year senior Neil MacDonald, 6'3" fourth-year senior Garry Gallimore and 6'2" third-year guard Tyler Richards, X righted themselves late, winning their last 6 league games in a row to qualify for one of the two first-round byes in a tournament in which they have won 6 of the last 7 championships including the past 3 in a row. X leaned on their veterans down the stretch, especially with 5'10" AUS Rookie-of-the-Year Christian "T-Bear" Upshaw nursing an ankle injury that kept him out of two games and rendered him less than 100% in a few others. The most experienced of the other rookies, 6'4" Dwayne Johnson, also battled injuries and illness for parts of the season and look for him to play an emerging role as the games get more important. 6'6" Terrance Taylor started earlier in the season and that experience has made him battle-hardened for coming off the bench as the stakes get higher. X is at their best when they saddle up and run at every occasion and then set their press up to wreak havoc and create turnovers for easy scores. In the half court, when Richards and Gallimore are making shots, they are very tough because most teams must double or triple team MacDonald. One-on-one down low for MacDonald is a difficult way to beat X. This X team presents more intrigue than many of their previous teams of the past decade because of the uncertainty with the freshmen. T-Bear Upshaw is presumably rested and ready to go after the rigours of running a top CIS team for a longer season than he is used to and in the best scenario for X, Upshaw has the kind of post season that marked the beginning of a career for another Halifax St. Patrick's grad and current teammate Tyler Richards, who had a tremendous post-season two years ago as a freshman.

In Thursday's first game, a pair of teams with tremendous athleticism square off as UPEI Panthers, with a pair of fifth-year stars in AUS First Team all-star 6'9" Doug McKinney and second-team all-star and former Player-of-the-Year and All-Canadian 6'5" Sherone Edwards, tangle with St. Mary's, a team that has had some churn this season and recently has been sticking to a very short bench, even bringing in the quarterback from their football team Eric Glavik (who would have been strongly recruited as a basketball player out of high school had he not had a stated intention of playing football). The teams have met twice this season in a pair of four-point games, with each team winning their game on their home floor including the latest tangle on January 12th (almost 2 months ago) in Charlottetown when the Panthers won 65-53. UPEI's first-year coach Matt Davies has done a commendable job after coming in late in the summer and has integrated some younger players into the veteran group he inherited. With McKinney, Edwards and fifth-year forward Peter Stay, the Panthers have 3 players with Nationals experience - all played on the Panther team that took eventual national champions Carleton to overtime in the first round of the 2002-03 Final Eight. With 5'10" 4th year guard Brent McLaren running the show and making shots, complemented by 6'0" fourth-year shooter Jared Budd and 5'10" 4th year guard Shakir Chambers, the Panthers back court must have a big game taking care of the ball and making shots. McKinney loves to face up and has range from behind the arc but can also score with his back to the basket while Edwards, author of numerous highlight reel dunks throughout his career, is best in an up-and-down game where he can flash his tremendous athleticism in the open court. In the end, the Panthers are toughest when Edwards and co. show the effort to try to lock down teams defensively, an effort which hasn't always been there consistently this season. Huskies coach Ross Quackenbush knows that the Panthers can explode at any time "This is a very dangerous team with the talent they have." St. Mary's will likely be selective in how much they run given how short their bench has been down the stretch. With emerging 6'2" guard Mark McLaughlin creating off the dribble, and running the show, Huskies have a solid go-to guy for key situations. Underrated Cordell Wright works on the wings and has several big games down the stretch. 6'7" Clint Bateman, one of the toughest matchups in the AUS when properly fit, can work both inside and out, and stretches defenses when he's making shots. Inside 6'6" Ikeobi (Ike) Uchegbu has been a presence defensively and his offensive game is expanding beyond put-backs off the offensive glass. 4th year guard Mark Ross brings stability while the emergence of Glavic as a contributor up front allows coach Quackenbush to rest his top players. Still, if St. Mary's can stay out of foul trouble, keep the game at a reasonable pace and limit Panther transition opportunities, the Huskies are capable of an upset in the semi-finals on Friday if they can push past UPEI on Thursday.

In the late game, #3 Acadia Axemen face #6 Dalhousie Tigers in a matchup of teams which were not part of last season's AUS tournament but this year both impressively rebounded with solid seasons. The Tigers have taken 2 of the 3 games this season from Acadia including last weekend's 5 point Axemen win in Wolfville during which both teams showed very little since the AUS tournament seedings had been already established. In the other conference meeting before the holiday break, played at Dalplex, the Tigers came up with a 7 point win and then at Dal's Rod Schoveller Memorial tournament in late December, Dal broke open a one-point game with 10 minutes left to win going away by 20 en route to the tournament's championship game. 6'1" AUS First Team all-star Paolo Santana makes the Axemen go with his ability to create off the dribble, either getting to the rim to finish or drawing and kicking to multiple Acadia perimeter shooters, most noteable being former Halifax St. Patrick's gunner Peter Leighton. Santana pushes a triple/double almost every night and Dal's ability to keep him out of the paint will be key to their success. The Axemen used their aggressive style to post a solid record of 11-3 after Christmas in what has been a complete turnaround from last season's 2 win effort. Besides Santana, Acadia's pair of athletic forwards 6'4" third-year forward Luckern Dieu who can create from the elbow and in and 6'7" 4th year forward Achuil Lual , a strong back-to-the-basket presence and defensive presence, provide a complementary set of skills up front for Acadia. At the point, 6'2" Andrew Kraus, an AUS all-rookie team selection, has been solid in his freshman year, taking care of the ball with the combination of strength and savvy; the Axemen need him to contribute the occasional perimeter make to keep things honest inside. Off the bench, Acadia got a tremendous lift offensively after the holidays from 6'5" 4th year transfer Shawn Berry (Lake Superior State); how much Berry contributes will be largely predicated on his ability to defend and stay out of foul trouble. The Axemen should also get a growing contribution from last season's Ken Shields award winner 6'2" Jordan Sheriko, who missed much of the early season because of injury. The Tigers must shake their propensity for poor starts including during their one and only trip to the Metro Center earlier this year against X when they got down big almost immediately and had to fight back all afternoon. Much of this will be on the shoulders of 6'2" sophomore point guard Andrew Sullivan, the floor leader for Dal who, when he takes care of the ball, makes good decisions and makes shots, is one of the top guards in the AUS. When Sullivan is on the floor and playing well, the Tigers can play with anyone. Dal must get a strong effort from their fifth-year wing 6'2" Monte Francois, the Tigers best scorer and veteran presence. Up front, 6'6" Germain Bendegue will have to deal with Axemen's tough inside guys - Bendegue has improved offensively and continues to grow into a more formidable intimidating force defensively and on the glass. With 6'7" Drew Stratton's versatility facing up and making shots, the Axemen bigs will have to respect the perimeter while 6'3" Devon Norris, the author of a couple of big, game-winning shots already this season will look to continue his tough play in big spots. The Tigers will be well-prepared and have the experience of playing in the Metro Center earlier this season so expect a very tight affair.

Stay tuned to for all the latest, up-to-the-minute results

Coming Soon: Quebec League Championship game preview

Chad Lucas of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald takes a look at this weekend's tournament in this morning's edition High Expectations

The Chronicle-Herald reports on yesterday's AUS major awards announcements Axemen's Santana Named AUS MVP

Neate Sager has a brief snipit on the most recent CIS Top 10 poll released yesterday Gee-Gees Take 5

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