TORONTO, CANADA – The regular season may have come to an end this week, but the excitement just keeps on coming in the CEBL. After a long season, the league’s best and brightest are once again poised to put on a great show in the playoffs this year. So before you grab your popcorn and flip on the CBC to watch the playoffs, make sure you’re caught up with our most recent list. This week, we’re breaking down every team’s biggest U SPORTS X-Factor as all six playoff teams get set for a championship run.
#6 Seed Ottawa BlackJacks: Kadre Gray (Laurentian, 2016-2020)
The BlackJacks may have only squeaked into the CEBL playoffs in the 6th and final spot, but nobody will be happy to play them in this year’s tournament, especially in the CEBL’s single-elimination format. Led by their dominant American centre Nick Ward, the league’s newest franchise has the ability to hang with any team in the league, as they showed everyone when they gave the Edmonton Stingers their only loss of the entire season. With veterans like Junior Cadougan and Negus Webster-Chan, the BlackJacks shape up as a tough team to beat even before we get to their U SPORTS X-Factor.
Anyone who has followed the CEBL this year, or U SPORTS in the four years before that, should know exactly what Kadre Gray is capable of. The two time national Player of the Year and four time OUA First Team All-Star has continued to excel in his first taste of professional basketball. Gray averaged 14.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists, which was good for 5th in the league, while shooting better than 38% from three this season, showcasing the style of all around basketball that made him so dangerous throughout his years at Laurentian. Ottawa is certainly an underdog in this year’s playoffs, but a vintage Kadre performance like the one he turned in on June 28th against Guelph, when he scored 27 points with 8 rebounds and 7 assists, would make them capable of hanging with just about anyone in the CEBL.
#5 Seed Guelph Nighthawks: TJ Lall (Carleton, 2015-2021)
It’s certainly been an up and down year for the Guelph Nighthawks. The team saw a ton of midseason roster turnover, and at a time looked as though they may be in jeopardy of dropping out of the playoffs altogether. But a strong stretch to end the season secured their spot in the quarterfinals, and even moved them out of the 6th seed and a matchup with the frightening Hamilton Honey Badgers. It’s been the American duo of Cat Barber and Ahmed Hill who have lead Guelph this season, as the Nighthawks are the only team in the CEBL with two players in the top five in scoring. But Barber and Hill will need help in their quarterfinal in Fraser Valley, and one player who’s heating up at just the right time is former Carleton Raven TJ Lall.
Lall had the best game of his CEBL career in Guelph’s second last game of the season, when he scored 15 points on 6/8 shooting to go with 4 assists as the Nighthawks beat the BlackJacks in a crucial game in terms of the final standings. Just a few games earlier, Lall had pulled down 15 rebounds to help Guelph upset the dominant Niagara River Lions. He struggled to find minutes under head coach Charles Kissi early in the season, but has since gotten a chance to show what he can do, and ran with it. The Nighthawks will need to get production from their supporting cast to accompany Barber and Hill, and Lall will be a player that Guelph looks to to supply just that.
#4 Seed Fraser Valley Bandits: Alex Campbell (Windsor, 2013-2016)
The Fraser Valley Bandits may be unhappy to find themselves as far down in the standings as 4th after their great start to the year, but this is a team that is still capable of a deep playoff run. The Bandits showed what they were capable of early in the season, starting the year 4-0, before coming back down to earth a bit and finishing the season 7-7. However, the Bandits are a gritty, tough team that no one will want to face in the playoffs. With tone setters like Defensive Player of the Year finalist Brandon Gilbeck and Sixth Man of the Year nominee Shaquille Keith alongside the league leader in assists Kenny Manigault, Fraser Valley has the chance to go far.
Even with their award nominees and star point guard, the Bandits will still lean heavily on our U SPORTS X-Factor Alex Campbell to beat the Nighthawks and advance to Edmonton for the semi-finals. The league leader in threes made, and third in three point percentage, Campbell has been a crucial element of Fraser Valley’s success this season. The former Lancer averaged 14.6 points per game, to go along with 5.2 rebounds, and has been the Bandits’ most important contributor in many ways this season. In their seven wins, Campbell averaged 15.1 points on 53.3% shooting from the field and 46.9% shooting from three, while the Windsor alumnus averaged 13.2 points on just 39.2% shooting from the field and 38.2% shooting from three in Fraser Valley’s seven losses. His performance will be crucial to the team’s success in this year’s playoffs.
#3 Seed Hamilton Honey Badgers: Jean-Victor Mukama (Rams, 2013-2019)
The Honey Badgers are entering the playoffs in need of a bit of a jumpstart. The team that once looked like the best choice to challenge the Edmonton Stingers for the championship have lost two in a row going in to the playoffs, and have suffered through injuries in the back half of the season. However, their strong start was enough to earn them the third seed in the league and a first round matchup with the lowest playoff seed. While the Honey Badgers are certainly a great team, they have looked like a one-man show at times this season. Star guard Lindell Wigginton has had a brilliant debut season in the CEBL, as his 22.1 points per game put him just barely behind two-time Player of the Year Xavier Moon for the league lead in scoring. Wigginton is Moon’s fellow finalist for POTY this year, and seems the heavy favourite for Canadian Player of the Year as well. Despite his brilliance, however, Wigginton is just one man, and Hamilton head coach Ryan Schmidt will need his supporting cast to show up in the playoffs.
With an honourable mention to former Dalhousie Tiger Keevan Veinot, Jean-Victor Mukama remains one of the Honey Badgers’ most important players, and takes the title of U SPORTS X-Factor for Hamilton. The former Rams star has started every game for Hamilton this season, and when he plays up to his potential, the Honey Badgers usually win. Mukama’s best moments this season, like his 16 point, 9 rebound game against Ottawa, or his 18 point, 9 rebound performance against the Nighthawks, have produced Hamilton victories. The Honey Badgers know that they’ll get a great performance from Wigginton on Saturday, but it’ll be the performance of Mukama and others that will dictate how far this team can go.
#2 Seed Niagara River Lions: Thomas Scrubb (Carleton, 2009-2015)
Whether you call them the Niagara Ravens or the Carleton River Lions, Canadian men’s basketball’s most legendary university program has their influence stamped all over the CEBL’s second best team in 2021. From Dave Smart’s new role as executive coach advising his former player and team head coach Vic Raso to a remarkable five current or former Ravens on the active roster, Carleton basketball has brought their winning ways to St Catharines this season. And while the best known names among them, Thomas and Philip Scrubb, were late arrivals, they still have the River Lions looking like true championship contenders. With American Xavier Sneed leading the way with 17.8 points per game, good for 4th in the league, and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Javin DeLaurier anchoring the paint, the River Lions have complimented their U SPORTS talent perfectly for a deep playoff run.
While the Americans on the roster have certainly shown their stuff, and as always he’ll face stiff competition from his little brother, it’s still easy to make the case that Thomas Scrubb is the most talented player on the River Lions roster. Niagara has lost just one game since he joined the team, his first game back, and his averages of 18.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.0 steals per game would have put him squarely in the Player of the Year conversation if he had played a full season. While Scrubb has been a model of consistency during his time with Niagara, he still ranks as our U SPORTS X-Factor due to his limited time with the team. However, his familiarity with his head coach and many of his teammates should go in his favour, and the extra bye week that the River Lions earned with their second seed finish won’t hurt either. Look for Scrubb to continue to be his usual superstar self as the River Lions set up with their eyes on the trophy.
#1 Seed Edmonton Stingers: Jordan Baker (Alberta, 2009-2014)
It was merely another year of excellence for the Edmonton Stingers in 2021. The defending CEBL champions went 13-1 en route to securing the season’s #1 seed, and they looked even more dominant than you would expect while doing it. Six of the Stingers’ 13 wins were by more than 15 points, while four of them were by more than 30 points and two of them were by more than 40. 40! The Stingers have played some of the best basketball in league history, and are led by the CEBL GOAT in Xavier Moon, looking for his third straight Player of the Year award, and a strong supporting cast. It also doesn’t hurt that this year’s semifinals and finals are being played in Edmonton. Even though they’ve got some very good teams lining up to take them down, with the home crowd behind them and the best team in league history on the court, this championship is the Stingers’ to lose.
But even the favourites have a U SPORTS X-Factor, and Edmonton’s comes in the form of the all-time king of our list, Jordan Baker. The Alberta Golden Bears legend is once again among the league’s rebounding leaders, and has had his best season yet in the CEBL, averaging 14.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. That’s a career high in all three of those categories for the three time Canada West First Team All-Star. Baker has brought consistency to Edmonton all year, and he’ll certainly want to bring it again in the intense playoff atmosphere, as the Stingers look to become the CEBL’s first ever back to back champions.