CIS Final 8 Preview

The Carleton Ravens will be vying for their eighth national title in the last 10 years when they hit the court March 9 in their first game of the 2012 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Final 8 tournament. The Charlatan’s Callum Micucci and Gianluca Nesci get you ready for the tournament with an in-depth preview of the teams from each conference.

Atlantic University Sport (AUS):

The host conference for this weekend’s CIS Final 8 tournament will be represented by two teams who have a total of six CIS championship banners between them. With the two teams having already battled for the AUS title at the Halifax Metro Centre last weekend, there will be a certain level of familiarity that could provide an advantage for the two Nova Scotia-based schools.

St. Francis Xavier X-Men

The X-Men come into the weekend as the sixth-ranked team in the tournament, after a season in which they only lost five games (playoffs included). Despite the low ranking, the team finds itself in familiar territory, as they have been a staple near the top of the AUS standings for over a decade.

The X-Men have used a solid defence to help get them to the tournament this year, as they ranked atop the AUS in defensive rebounds (35.7 per game) and blocked shots (3.6 per game), while holding opponents to a stingy 74. 1 points per game.

On offence, the team’s 17.8 assists per game were fourth-best in the country. Many of those assists came as a result of sophomore guard Terry Thomas and his 18.9 points per game, who was often on the receiving end of a pass from veteran point guard Tyrell Vernon. If that duo is firing in all cylinders, St. FX has a very real chance of making a deep run in the tournament.

In Steve Konchalski, the X-Men have one of the most respected coaches in all of collegiate basketball. This season, “Coach K” recorded his 800th career win behind the X-Men bench, putting him alone atop the CIS record books. What better way for the team to close out a historic season than with the fourth W.P. McGee Trophy in the program’s history?

Acadia Axemen

The AUS champions will head into this weekend’s tournament as the eighth and final seed, despite coming off an impressive 82-71 victory over the X-Men to claim the AUS championship.

The calling card for the team all season long has been their ability to dominate the game from beyond the arc. The Axemen were second in the nation with 9.2 three pointers per game, while they ranked second in the AUS in three point defence, holding opponents to a shooting average of .309 from downtown.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Axemen are anchored by AUS defensive player of the year Owen Klassen. The Kingston, Ont. native led the team in both rebounds (10.1 per game) and blocked shots (1.50 per game). But the third-year forward can also do damage on the other end of the court, as he was second on the team in scoring (16.4 points per game). Those totals made him the only player in the AUS to average a double-double this season.

With Klassen providing cover in the paint, Acadia are able to play an aggressive, up-tempo style on the defensive end, which allowed them to record 10.0 steals per game (the fifth highest total in the country).

If Klassen is unable to replicate his regular season form, head coach Steve Baur has a plethora of options available to help carry the load, as the Axeman boast five players who hit double-digits in scoring this season. That group is led by third-year guard and AUS tournament MVP Anthony Sears, who poured in a team-high 17.4 points per game this season.

As the eighth seed, the Axemen will have the unenviable task of dislodging the defending champion Carleton Ravens to open the tournament. The game will feature a battle between two of the most well-balanced teams in the nation, as each squad has a handful of players capable of putting up points in bunches.

Canada West:

The Canada West conference will be represented by two new teams at this year’s CIS national championship, as perennial powers such as the University of Saskatchewan Huskies and University of British Columbia Thunderbirds have been upstaged for the first time in recent memory. While one of the two teams is finally back in familiar territory, the other will be in for a whole new experience.

Alberta Golden Bears

The Golden Bears head into the tournament as the number two seed, and will be looking to carry over the momentum from a thrilling victory in the Canada West championship, where they squeaked out a 72-71 thriller against the University of Fraser Valley Cascades. That was the eighth consecutive victory for the Golden Bears, who are hitting their stride at the perfect time of the season.

With less than a handful of seniors on the squad, head coach Greg Francis will arrive in Halifax with one of the youngest teams in the tournament. But despite that youthful exuberance, the Golden Bears will be led by a veteran presence.

Fifth-year guard Daniel Ferguson will bear most of the responsibility on the offensive side of the ball. Ferguson, who was recently named a second-team Canada West all-star, comes into the tournament having scored 19.6 points per game this season, including a game-high 25 against the Cascades.

But if teams put too much emphasis on the Malton, Ont. native, the Golden Bears can turn to former Canada West rookie of the year Jordan Baker. The 6’7” guard averaged a double-double of 19.1 points per game to go along with 10.4 rebounds per game, putting him amongst the top 10 in each category nationally.

The Golden Bears are the last team other than the Carleton Ravens to lift the W.P. McGee Trophy at the Halifax Metro Centre, doing so in 2001-2002. Their attempt to repeat that feat begins with a tilt against the Ryerson Rams March 9.

University of Fraser Valley Cascades

The Cascades will be heading to Halifax as one of the most compelling stories of the 2011-2012 season. Having never competed for the Canada West title in program history, Fraser Valley came up two points shy of recording a historic victory against the Golden Bears. Despite the nail-biting 72-71 loss, their appearance in the conference final was enough to book their ticket to Halifax, where they will attempt to take home the first W.P. McGee Trophy in program history.

The team is fueled by a well-balanced scoring attack, one that saw four players record double-digits in points throughout the season. That group was led by guard Joel Friesen, who was named to the Canada West first all-star team after recording 16.8 points per game.

With forward Jasper Moedt the only player on the roster standing above 6’6” – he is listed at 6’7” – the Cascades will be one of the smallest teams at the tournament. But that won’t stop them from spending plenty of time in the paint.

With a quick group of guards, expect the new boys on the block to get inside and attack the rim, as opposed to settling for jumpers from the outside. The Cascades finished the season atop the CIS rankings with an average of 19.4 free throws per game.

The team will open the tournament against the Lakehead Thunderwolves. Despite being the wildcard entry, the Thunderwolves will be favoured going into this game, as they hold the number four seed for the tournament. If the Cascades can pull off the upset, Halifax could be in for one of the great Cinderella runs in CIS history.

The Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ):

The Concordia Stingers are the only team representing Quebec at the CIS nationals. They finished first place in the RSEQ this season with a 14-2 record, and defeated the Université du Québec à Montréal Citadins by a score of 77-47 to take home the Quebec championship title.

The Stingers led their conference in scoring this season, averaging 74.1 points per game. They first crept into the CIS top 10 rankings Nov. 29.

Of all the teams heading to Halifax this weekend, Concordia rebounds the ball the best statistically and has the most steals per game in the CIS.

The Stingers are led by fourth-year forward Evens Laroche, third-year guard Kyle Desmarais, and veteran fifth-year guard Decee Krah, who each average around 13-14 points per game.

The Stingers are seeded third, so they’ll have a shot at the sixth-seeded X-Men when they open the tournament March 9.

Ontario University Athletics (OUA):

This year, three OUA teams will be playing for a CIS national basketball title in Halifax. Two of the three teams are familiar with CIS national territory, while one underdog came up with a huge upset victory to secure their berth in the tournament.

Ryerson Rams

The Ryerson Rams claimed the seventh seed in Halifax with a surprise semifinal upset over the defending OUA champions March 2 at the OUA Final Four in Waterloo, Ont.

It’s inexplicable how they did it. Having won only five of seven games for a slow start this year, the Rams found a hot streak starting Jan. 19 and won nine of their next 11 games leading up to their appearance against the defending Thunderwolves. However, in that same period since Jan. 19, the Thunderwolves won all 11 of their games. The stronger team was riding an even stronger winning streak, but Ryerson came out on top by a score of 86-70.

The win was in part due to a spectacular performance by first-year small forward Aaron Best, who was named to the OUA East all-rookie Team just a week prior. Best drained 78.6 per cent of his field goal attempts and went three-for-five from beyond the arc for 26 points in the upset victory.

The Rams have their other main assets in two sophomores, guard Jordan Gauthier and point guard Jahmal Jones. Gauthier and Jones were ranked No. 13 and 14 respectively in OUA scoring this year, with 15.55 and 15.45 points per game.

Given the fact that they went 13-9 this season, however, it’s tough to expect much out of a team that came third in its conference and lacks CIS nationals experience. The only other time the Rams went to CIS nationals was in the 1998-1999 season.

The Rams will be in tough March 9 as they open the tournament against the No. 2 seeded Golden Bears to decide their national championship fate.

Lakehead Thunderwolves

The Lakehead Thunderwolves fell victim to a surprise performance by the underdog Rams in the OUA semifinals this year, but that didn’t stop them from being selected as the wild card team to play in Halifax this weekend.

The Thunderwolves were ranked No. 2 in the CIS for the last seven weeks of the season after leapfrogging the X-Men. The Thunderwolves went 20-2 this regular season, topping the OUA West division for the third straight year, but they couldn’t solve the Rams.

And speaking of giant-killing, the Thunderwolves are no less experienced in being upset than they are in doing the upsetting. The Thunderwolves beat the Carleton Ravens last year by a score of 77-62 to claim their first-ever OUA title.

This season, the Thunderwolves were the closest to beating the undefeated Ravens, coming within three points.

Veteran guards Greg Carter, Venzal Russell and Ben Johnson led the Thunderwolves this season. Carter and Russell, who rank second and third respectively in steals in the CIS this season, are key defensive components for the Thunderwolves.

Russell is also a key offensive component, ranking No. 37 in CIS points per game with an average of 15.8.

Johnson, meanwhile, is impressive from beyond the arc. His 54.5 per cent three-point average this season put him second in the CIS, just behind Carleton’s Philip Scrubb. He holds the Lakehead record for most three pointers in a game, going nine for 12 in a Jan. 27 game against the Windsor Lancers.

Lakehead is seeded fourth at this year’s CIS nationals. If they play Carleton, expect trouble, as they proved last year they have the ability to beat the Ravens, and they came close this year. They face the Cascades in the quarter-finals March 9.

Carleton Ravens

The Ravens are the team to beat this year, as they have been for the past decade. They are undefeated thus far against CIS opponents this year, and lead the CIS in points per game, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. They also have the least turnovers per game of any team in the CIS.

They’ve won seven of the past nine CIS national titles, having beaten Trinity Western last year by a score of 82-59 to take home their seventh W.P. McGee trophy.

Cole Hobin, Willy Manigat, and Elliot Thompson are the Ravens veterans, and they’re sure to bring valuable national experience to the plate.

Despite head coach Dave Smart rejecting his team’s impressive shooting ability as “fool’s gold” in some situations, his team does shoot incredibly well. Third-year guard Kevin Churchill led the CIS in field goal percentage and sophomore guard Phillip Scrubb led the CIS in three-point percentage. Third-year forward Tyson Hinz ranks fifth in CIS field goal percentage behind Churchill, and three more Ravens cracked the CIS top 50 field goal percentage rankings this year.

Rebounding is one area where Carleton doesn’t dominate. This has been a major concern for the Ravens all year. Carleton is ranked 19th in rebounding in the CIS.

That said, it would be a big upset if the Ravens didn’t take it for a second straight year and for the eighth time in the past decade. They are certainly the favourite, having held the top seed in the CIS top 10 rankings since the start of the season.

This doesn’t mean it will be an easy ride for the men, as top teams like Lakehead, Fraser Valley, St. Francis-Xavier, and Alberta will be hungry to steal a victory. The Ravens will start their defence of the title against the Axemen March 9 at 1:15 p.m.