Maybe the most eye-opening element of the first day of play at the CIS Final 8 was the dominance of the Canada West teams, most noteably in the evening session Saskatchewan's guard play. Watching 5'11" Jamelle Barrett and his ability to beat defenders off the dribble live had most observers I watched with rate the slick point as an upgrade over last season's sensation Showron Glover. Not only was Barrett able to consistently beat Dal's defensive whiz 6'2" Stephen Lopez off the dribble, his deliveries inside to 6'8" Michael Lieffers and 6'6" Nolan Bruhdel among others set up numerous easy scores - in the case of the explosive Lieffers four big slams. The Tigers rode the home crowd estimated at about 5,500 to an early 7 point lead but Barrett and the wily veteran 6'0" Rejean Chabot continually put pressure on Dal's "d" allowing the Huskies to comfortably pull away as the second half progressed. The Tigers generally were able to limit easy Saskatchewan transition scores but simply could keep Barrett in front of them in the quarter court and Saskatchewan moves on to face Carleton this evening. 6'9" Joe Schow was excellent for Dal, continually challenging the Huskies front line inside and facing up from 15 feet. Tigers 6'1" Simon Farine had a couple of stretches where he began to take over offensively however down the stretch Barrett, Chabot and Lieffers were too much for a valiant Tigers side.
After last weekend's upset loss in the Wilson Cup game in which Carleton Ravens looked like a defeated team for the first time in recent memory, most expected the OUA East regular season champs to return to their normal ways. And the Ravens did do their usual steady job of defending and generally rebounding against Concordia Stingers. However, for the second straight game, the Ravens, who in the regular season were arguably the best and most consistent perimeter shooting team in the Dave Smart coaching era, could not make shots in big spots. Carleton uncharacteristically gave up a 10 point first half lead to a very well-prepared and underrated Stinger team and later in at least 3 stretches in the second half, the Ravens took 5 to 6 point leads with the ball and a chance to break the game open. In what may be the defining reason the Ravens have struggled lately, Carleton missed several wide open looks that allowed Concordia to stay in the game and down the stretch initially struggled against the Stingers 2/2/1 three-quarter court press. Still, behind 6'6" Tyson Hinz and 6'0" Willy Manigat, the Ravens moved on, albeit with much less of the mystique and dominance most have seen historically.
Tonight's Carleton/Saskatchewan matchup is a rematch of last season's CIS semi-final in which the bigger, stronger Huskies held on en route to the National championship. Carleton will have to shoot the ball and play with much more confidence offensively to defeat Saskatchewan in pulling off what I would now call an upset. Prediction: Saskatchewan by 7.
Speaking of predictions, I was 2-2 yesterday with two very obvious misses on Canada West teams, beginning with Trinity Western Spartans, who showed that their very talented front line, led by 6'6" Jacob Doerksen, is very formidable. 6'6" Kyle Coston also had a big game and once again watching live highlighted the very slick passing abilities Coston has. 6'6" Tyrell Mara does all the little less noticeable things really well while Spartan guards 6'1" Tristan Smith and 6'0" Daniel |Horner were more than adequate in most stretches to allow the Spartans to basically dominate Lakehead, especially in fourth quarter stretches where TWU de-bunked the notion of dominant Thunderwolves fourth-quarters by staving off every run and scoring 32 points of their own in the final 10 minutes.
Despite a slow start, UBC was generally impressive in their win over a very game Acadia Axemen side. The T-Birds came alive defensively midway through the third quarter, locking down Axemen penetration and 6'3" Doug Plumb took over offensively, getting to the rim in transition and in the half court as the T-Birds rapidly pulled away for what turned out to be an easy win. UBC will have to get more consistent guard play from 6'1" Alex Murphy who was very ordinary against Acadia when it was still a game but later was able to get some of his once the lead had swelled. 6'2" Nathan Yu did not have one of his better shooting games despite some open looks yet the T-Birds still scored over 90 points and won by 20 going away.
Tonight's UBC/Trinity matchup - the third meeting of the season between the two teams and the first since October - arguably is a mental challenge for the talent Spartans more than anything. TWU has yet to get the monkey off their backs against UBC as the T-Birds talented front line led by 6'6" Brent Malish and scrappy 6'5" Graham Bath in past games has been able to control Coston, Doerksen and Co. despite being undersized. The underlying keys to a Spartan victory tonight again in my mind are guard play and how well underrated 6'3" Calvin Westbrook can get off offensively.
Prediction: Trinity Western 92, UBC 91
Without a doubt, all three Canada West teams are deservedly through to the semi-final and without question, the Top 4 teams in the CIS are where they deserve to be.
On a side note, the return of the Nationals to Halifax has been tremendous and my experience has been great as always. Having first come out here for the Nationals 18 years ago as a member of the Ottawa Gee-Gees coaching staff, the atmosphere remains strong, the people very welcoming and accomodating and the ability to catch up with everyone from across the country uplifting. Also, much thanks to Bill McLean who was gracious enough to have me on SSN Canada webcasts of the first two games which was thoroughly enjoyable for me.