After two consecutive CIS championship game appearances, the fourth-and-fifth year senior laden and #1 ranked UBC Thunderbirds are poised to take that final step to bringing home their first title since the early 70's. The first hurdle is an early Friday afternoon matchup with startup Acadia Axemen, who only two weeks ago were uncertain as to whether or not they would even make the AUS tournament but, after a 9 game losing streak, won 3 of their last 4 games of the regular season (including a pair of four-point home wins against last place Memorial) to vault into fourth place and then staged one of the bigger post-season upsets in recent memory by defeating Cape Breton Capers in overtime last weekend to qualify as the #8 seed.
On paper, the young Axemen have neither the experience nor depth and some would argue overall talent to stay within 20 points of the Thunderbirds. However, stranger things have happened and with three CIS stalwards, the Axemen have a fleeting chance against the deep T-Birds who have 9 or 10 solid experienced players in their rotation capable of playing any number of different ways depending upon the situation and matchups.
Acadia, which legitimately goes only 6 or 7 deep, usually runs their offense through their 6'9" AUS all-star four man Owen Klassen who, with his back-to-basket skills, usually must be double teamed in the post but also has solid big man perimeter skills that can take advantage of favorable matchups. The Birds have several alternatives for guarding Klassen, starting with fifth-year forward 6'6" Brent Malish, who is strong and smart enough to make Klassen work for position in the blocks and certainly quick enough with his feet to guard Klassen all the way out beyond the three point line. Malish's offensive package is also difficult for Klassen to guard - the sophomore from Kingston, ON remains somewhat foul prone. 6'6" starter Kamar Burke and 6'6" Graham Bath, an 18 minute per game big man off the bench, are also options for guarding Klassen - expect coach Kevin Hanson to run different checks at Acadia's main offensive threat.
Acadia's 6'3" Anthony Sears is a streaky shooting guard who generally has license to take the first open look as Acadia does not mind playing fast. Expect 6'2" Josh Whyte to push up on Sears and force him to put it on the deck and Sears will have his hands full guarding Whyte - assuming Axemen coach Steve Baur does not go to a zone defense to protect his comparatively short rotation and slow the T-Birds down offensively. UBC starting three man 6'3" Doug Plumb is also an underrated athlete who should be able to size up with Sears if necessary. Plumb is also very difficult to guard one-on-one and keep off the offensive glass.
6'6" Justin Boutilier was the hero against Cape Breton with 20 points after halftime including several big 3's but he can also get to the rim and is rounding into one of the finer three/fours in the CIS. Burke has the athleticism to match and even dominate Boutilier. 6'6" Melvyn Mayott is another top defender off the bench for UBC and there will likely be little if any drop off with Mayott matching up with Boutilier.
At the point, 6'1" fifth-year senior Alex Murphy came into his own this season running the team as Coach Hanson moved Whyte to the two spot full time and gave ironman Murphy (he played in every UBC game of his career) the reigns at the lead guard full time. BC college transfer Tyler Lutton mostly runs the point for Acadia and does an adequate job getting into the lane and distributing however more than one team gave Lutton space on the perimeter, almost daring the 5'11" guard to beat them from the perimeter. 6'3" Alex McLaughlin is the usual starter at the two spot for the Axemen and he has had several big offensive games this season and has established himself as a legitimate perimeter scorer against most teams. With two fifth-year seniors in Murphy and Whyte, UBC has big advantages at both ends of the floor in these matchups.
Maybe only one or two other teams in the country can go to their bench and bring in the type of quality scorer that UBC can with 6'2" Nathan Yu, who usually ends up playing starters minutes and throughout his career has won games for the T-Birds with his three-point shooting - but he is much more than just a stand still shooter. Yu should be featured if Acadia spends alot of possessions in their zone, which arguably was the defensive reason why they were able to stay in the game against Cape Breton.
The T-Birds will look to limit the Axemen's early offense and probably look to have someone else other than Acadia's Big 3 try to beat them. Expect UBC to push up on Lutton and Sears and try to establish their defense immediately off the opening tip - in the Canada West championship game on Saturday against Saskatchewan, the Birds held the Huskies to just 9 first quarter points in forging out to a 14 point lead. This game should be decided within 5 minutes of either side of halftime.
Prediction: UBC 93, Acadia 66