OUA Final Four goes tonight in Hamilton in a change in format not seen since 1991-92. That season, the last of a four-year stretch during which Quebec schools played league games and participated in Ontario playoffs, Waterloo hosted a neutral site Wilson Cup Final Four (which Brock won on their way to their first National championship). The next season, Laval started their basketball program and Quebec has since had their own seperate regular season and playoffs and Ontario went back to the East/West format that has predominated. Since 1992-93 (17 seasons), the East and West champions have met at alternate sites for what was more of a game for ceremony and banner collecting, occasionally affecting nationals rankings; however both teams had already qualified for the Nationals. The OUA did have an 8 team cross-over tournament in the first three seasons of the expanded OUA basketball campaign (1971-72 through 1973-74 - Windsor hosted the first two and Waterloo hosted the third). In 1974-75, the format went back to East vs. West winners and has remained in place save for that one season in 1992-93 during which I recall Waterloo was packed and the Brock BucketHeads displayed newspapers in the crowd honoring their boyish-looking point guard Dave Picton, nicknamed the "Paper Boy" who would lead his Badgers to the National championship later that season. This season's new Final Four format puts the foundation in place to create a higher provincial-level profile for the event which will be televised and webcast on the Score (link will go up at game-time on the site).
In the early game, uOttawa Gee-Gees meet Lakehead and the key matchup will likely be several different Thunderwolves guarding Ottawa's explosive 6'6" Warren Ward, who, after an injury-plagued first half, helped carry the Gee-Gees to a 9-4 regular season finish and then a pair of playoff victories over Laurentian and at second place U of T Varsity Blues. With 5'9" Greg Carter, Lakehead has arguably the top defender in the OUA West but can also use several other athletic defenders to try to slow Ward. The Thunderwolves, regular season OUA West champions, again this season proved down the stretch (especially late in games) that they are the toughest defensive team in the West. Ottawa's ability to get the ball into the hands of 6'2" Johnny Berhanemeskel for open looks will be key while 6'2" fifth-year senior Jamie Searle is arguably the one player who can turn games around offensively from beyond the three when he gets going for Lakehead. Searle was the key reason Lakehead was able to come back from a large second-half deficit last season when these two teams met in the OUA Third-Place game at Montpetit Hall in Ottawa with a Final 8 appearance on the line. The matchup inside between 6'6" Yoosrie Salhia and fiery 6'9" Louis Gauthier, contrasting Salhia's quickness and athleticism with Gauthier's size and strength will be important - much will depend upon how the game is officiated inside - Gauthier in particular has wrestled with foul trouble as the season progressed. In the only meeting of the season between these two teams, the Thunderwolves came back from a double digit second half deficit with a patented fourth-quarter defensive lock down, holding Ottawa to just 11 points in the final frame, while Searle went off for 20 points including 5-11 3's as Lakehead won at Montpetit Hall 68-65. Ward went 8 for 20 in that game just coming off a hamstring injury while Berhanemeskel had only 4 points without a three point goal. Lakehead has built a deep, athletic roster that usually wears opponents down by the time the fourth quarter rolls around and in the past two meetings between these two teams, the Thunderwolves were able to use that advantage to take over late. Ottawa has two very good weapons and has also received steadier performances at the point from 6'2" Jacob Gibson-Bascombe. The Gee-Gees are also very underrated defensively in the half court when they are right. Expect another game in the high 60's where open looks are at a premium and another game decided late in the fourth quarter.
In the second game, the undefeated #1 ranked Carleton Ravens match up with Laurier Golden Hawks and their big, strong, talented front line. Biggest back drop to this game is that the Hawks were the only team in the regular season to come to within single digits of the Ravens, losing 88-80 at home as 6'5" Kale Harrison went off for 39 points on 13-22 shooting against perennial Defensive Player-of-the-Year Cole Hobin of the Ravens. Hobin's reputation is very well deserved as his length, foot quickness and preparation have served him well in locking down opponent's top scorers for much of the past two seasons - but in October, Harrison lit up Carleton and Hobin. Much of the Golden Hawks success this season came after Head Coach Peter Campbell gave the bulk of the offensive decision making responsibilities to 6'6" Maxwell Allin - best defined in my mind as a Point Forward - using the same strategy first employed by then-Milwaukee Bucks coach Don Nelson with 6'6" Paul Pressey and later replicated by Eddie Pomykala at Bishop's with 6'5" Warren Newberry, among other incarnations. Regardless, Allin has shown that he has the ability to excel as big perimeter forward who can distribute, defend and also make big shots as his 36 point explosion last Saturday night at Windsor showed. If the Ravens are vulnerable anywhere, it may be with a decided lack of size inside and Laurier, with rugged 6'7" Pat Donnelly, underrated 6'5" Matt Buckley plus 6'5" Harrison and 6'6" Allin are long and thick across the front line. Laurier, however, will have to deal with the Ravens stable of quick guards, starting with 5'11" Willy Manigat and 6'2" Phil Scrubb, who wreak havoc at the top of Coach Dave Smart's pressure, from which he has been trapping in the back court, something not seen with this season's consistency at Carleton since Smart's tenure began. Laurier's young guards including 6'2" freshman Jamar Forde and 5'11" Travis Berry will have to be able to deal with the trapping, athleticism and anticipation of the Ravens guards. In many games this season, Carleton's patented game-deciding runs, which often happen in a blink, were catalyzed by their pressure and subsequent easy run outs for layups or open 3's. Expect Hobin to start on Harrison while Laurier will have to find a defensive matchup for CISHoops.ca OUA East POY 6'6" Tyson Hinz, who may get the Allin matchup. 6'6" Aaron Chapman should start on Buckley while Scrubb and Forde appear to be a logical matchup. Laurier needs to deal with Ravens pressure and avoid those 10-0 runs that as mentioned come out of nowhere and happen before one can blink while Carleton must be able to rebound the ball given Laurier gets alot done on the offensive glass. It will be interesting to see how Carleton deals with double downs on Buckley or others. Laurier wants an offensive oriented game in the 80's with the Ravens hoping to keep it in the 60's. If Laurier can deal with the pressure and attack the offensive glass, the Hawks can compete while defending, rebounding and taking good shots - Carleton staples during their tremendous decade-long run - will likely be on display if Carleton remains undefeated.
Reminder: games are on the Score television network with 6 PM Ottawa/Lakehead game live and Carleton/Laurier game tape delayed at 10 PM. Both games are live on the Score web site with the link to be up at game time.