Hamilton, ON – With all four U SPORTS conferences back up and running after three of them paused, the race to the playoffs, conference titles and U SPORTS Final 8 in Kingston starts again. The pauses and inconsistency of the season means that teams won’t play the same amount of games (even in the same conference sometimes). Not all the postponed games will be made up, including some top-tier matchups. Some teams will have played many more games than others (Canada West vs RSEQ for example).
Here’s an early look at the Final 8 field with my version of U SPORTS Bracketology – following the great work of Neate Sager and the CIS Blog from previous years. One thing that stands out right now is the fluidity at the top and really all throughout the lineup.
A case can be made for 4-5 teams as legitimate national title contenders. Only two undefeated teams remain (from all U SPORTS games): the Rams and the UPEI Panthers. However, the Canada West powers will play a factor as Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Fraser Valley are all enjoying strong seasons.
While the Huskies are defending national champions, it won’t be easy even booking an automatic place at nationals. It will be a tight contest for the at-large berth, for which the criteria stays the same as the 2019-20 season. In terms of seeding, a lot is in flux from the number 1 spot down to number 5 and a lot will be determined down the stretch and in the playoffs. This is how I see the picture as of Feb. 21.
1.The Rams (hypothetical OUA champion)
Overall Record: 14-0 (10-0 in conference play)
Best Win on Resume: Brock Badgers (62-61) on Oct. 16
After a disappointing nationals in 2020 when they lost two straight games, the Rams have reloaded under head coach Carly Clarke. They have plenty of experienced players coming back from that season and have added even more through transfers Nyamuoch Teny (Windsor), Kaillie Hall (Bowling Green) and Mikaela Dodig (UNB). Their depth and cohesion is clear as well as the leadership the veterans bring.
Marin Scotten continues to be a key offensive player for them while Rachel Farwell has improved her game as a reliable scorer and three-point shooter. Jama Bin-Edward is back after missing the second half of the 2019-20 season due to injury.
The Rams lead the OUA in three-point shooting (41.8 per cent), points-allowed per game (50.6) and net efficiency (0.320) while ranking second in offensive efficiency (0.986) and points-scored per game (75.8). Until they lose in the playoffs, the Rams will be right in the mix to be the number one seed for nationals.
2. UPEI Panthers (AUS champion)
Overall Record: 13-0 (9-0)
Best Win on Resume: Saint Mary’s Huskies (67-53) on Nov. 20
Ever since head coach Matt Gamblin took over the Panthers job in 2018-19, the team has enjoyed great success and continues to climb. After finishing 17-3 in his first year, UPEI – led by U SPORTS National Player of the Year Jenna Mae Ellsworth – won the AUS and bronze at nationals in 2019-20.
Two years later, they are poised to reach even greater heights having run the table so far and earned a number one spot in the U SPORTS rankings earlier this season. Ellsworth is back as the main offensive threat with 21.4 points-per-game in all games (third in Canada behind Acadia’s Jayda Veinot and Sarah Gates) and shooting an astonishing 52.2 per cent on threes.
Like last time, she has a strong supporting cast with running mates Reese Baxendale (14.0 ppg) and Lauren Rainford (18.4). First-year guard Alicia Bowering has made an immediate impact while veteran Spanish post Caroline Del Santo is a force to be reckoned with on the boards (15 per game). Like the Rams, the Panthers lead their conference in numerous categories.
Given their undefeated record, the Panthers should be in contention for the number one seed. The group’s collective experience at nationals in 2019-20 should help this time around as they look to make another deep run and go one step further.
3. Winnipeg Wesmen (Canada West Champion)
Overall Record: 20-2 (14-2)
Best Win on Resume: Saskatchewan Huskies (77-64) on Feb. 19
A candidate for break through team of the year so far, the Wesmen – under long-time head coach Tanya McKenzie McKay – have catapulted into the national title picture after an 12-8 finish in 2019-20.
A big reason for their emergence is the core of returning and incoming veterans with their big three of Kyanna Giles (Regina transfer), Keylyn Filewich (UBC) and Faith Hezekiah. Hezekiah has long been one of the most efficient scorers in the nation during her five-year career and now she has plenty of offensive firepower alongside her.
Giles can score and make plays for others slashing to the rim while Filewich is a dominant presence down in the paint. Fellow guards Anna Kernaghan and Robyn Boulanger provide support and playmaking. The Wesmen lead Canada West in offensive efficiency (0.982), field goal percentage (43 per cent) and points-per-game (81.3) while also being second in net efficiency (0.286).
The team has already scored some notable victories this season, beating the reigning conference and national champion Saskatchewan Huskies twice, including this past weekend 77-64 in Saskatoon.
In McKay’s long and illustrious playing and coaching career with Winnipeg (five as a player, 26 as a head coach), she’s reached the mountain top once as an assistant coach with the 1992-93 CIAU title-winning squad. Now she and her players will have just as good a chance at winning it all once again.
4. Brock Badgers (OUA Finalist)
Overall Record: 12-2 (10-0)
Best Win on Resume: Guelph Gryphons (78-52) on Nov. 24.
One of the big questions after Brock’s dream season in 2019-20, which led to an OUA title and the second-place finish at nationals, was whether they could follow it up. Reigning U SPORTS coach of the year Mike Rao and his squad have so far proven the answer to be yes so far.
The Badgers are undefeated so far in conference play, with their only losses coming to the Rams and Carleton in the preseason. Having OUA all-star Sam Keltos back is huge on both ends of the floor. They’ve been able to make up for the departure of star guards Melissa Tatti and Jessica Morris with returning guard Jenneke Pilling, rookie Madalyn Weinert and transfers Mackenzie Robinson (Laurentian), Ivana Twumasi (Humber College, Gannon) and Victoria Lawrence (George Brown College).
Their ability to execute on both ends of the floor was apparently in their recently home-and-home against a strong McMaster squad. They were able to push out to double-digit leads and execute on both ends with and without Keltos on the floor. Their defence has been stingy, allowing a league-low 28.2 field goal percentage from opponents and being third in net efficiency (0.262).
Like with many top teams, they will benefit from the playoff and nationals experience of 2019-20 while they remain the notable favourite in the OUA West and have a strong chance to defend their Critelli Cup crown. If they finish as an OUA runner-up, the Badgers would likely slot in around the 4-5 range. If they win the OUA again, look for them to move up to 1-2.
5. Alberta Pandas (Canada West Finalist)
Overall Record: 17-3 (12-2)
Best Win on Resume: Lethbridge Pronghorns (86-74) on Feb. 18
In the Canada West Central division, the Alberta Pandas had jumped out in front with a 12-2 record. Veteran coach Scott Edwards has the team humming with several contributors on both ends of the court.
Fourth-year guard Emma Kary has taken on the scoring role – leading the team with 14.9 points-per-game – with second-year forward Claire Signatovic and fifth-year forward Mackenzie Cook in support.
Former Saskatchewan Huskies guard Brianna Fehr (2019-20 U SPORTS and Canada West champion) has made an impact since transferring with her scoring, rebounding and perimeter defence (a team-high 32 steals). Guards Morgan Harris and Abby Morrison also provide playmaking and scoring.
Under Edwards, the Pandas have been a consistent presence in the Canada West title race and beyond. They’ve reached nationals six times in his sixteen seasons and figure again to be in the mix once again. The season will come down to how well they fare against the other heavyweights of the conference, which is tough to say since they’ve haven’t played them yet. Even if they don’t reach the Canada West finals, they should be in the hunt for the at-large berth.
6. Concordia Stingers (RSEQ champion)
Overall Record: 6-4 (4-2)
Best Win on Resume: Bishop’s Gaiters (71-60) on Nov. 18.
It’s been tough to gauge the RSEQ conference given their limited sample size. While the conference has had some elite teams in the past – thanks in part to the CEGEP pipeline – it’s still unclear how the season and playoffs will unfold. The Concordia Stingers are second in the conference standings (behind 3-1 Bishop’s) but have the better overall record. They’ve also beaten the Gaiters in their lone matchup this season so far.
Head coach Tenicha Gittens has already led her team to nationals once (2018-19) in her seven-year tenure and has looks to have the team to do so again. Leading the way are a core of veterans who were part of that 2018-19 squad.
Guard Myriam Leclerc is a shifty scorer able to create her own shot in all areas of the court. Her prowess was on display this past weekend against Laval, when she dropped 20 and 29 points in their two wins. Veterans Caroline Task, Coralie Dumont, Nelly Owusu and Areej Burgonio provide support. The continuity from 2018-19 for the team’s core is a key factor come playoffs and possibly nationals.
In terms of rankings, given how the other conferences shape up as well as the limited number of games in Quebec, the RSEQ champion could be seeded fifth or sixth (the lowest a conference champion can be ranked). However, given the conference’s reputation for having strong teams at nationals, the RSEQ representative could prove to be a tough test.
7. Saskatchewan Huskies (At Large berth)
Overall Record: 16-4 (14-2)
Best Win on Resume: Winnipeg (69-53) on Jan. 29.
After winning their second national title under head coach Lisa Thomaidis in 2019-20, the Huskies were going to have to replace a number of important players in Sabine Dukate, Megan Ahlstrom, Kyla Shand, Vera Crooks and Brianna Fehr among others. Assistant coach Claire Meadows also left to become the Queen’s Gaels head coach.
So far this season, while they have suffered a few losses, the Huskies look as strong as before. The returning veterans have played a big role in that as some have stepped into bigger roles. Having First-team All-Canadian Summer Masikewich helps as she continues her stellar play. Veteran point guard Libby Epoch is now running the offence more than ever, averaging a career-high in points-per-game (10.3) as well as leading the team in assists (79) and steals (41).
Megan’s young sister Carly Ahlstrom has stepped up as a key contributor with her three-point shooting (39.6 per cent) and rebounding (7.4 per game). Fourth-year guard Katriana Philipenko continues in her role as a sharpshooter, shooting a team-high 40.7 per cent from deep (seventh-best in U SPORTS). First-year guard Tea DeMong has also made an impact averaging 8.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
With the rankings still in flux, depending on how the playoffs unfold, the Huskies could be as high as three (maybe even two) or as low as seven if they don’t get in automatically. The good news for them is if they go deep in the playoffs (Canada West semi-finals), they should be in the driver’s seat for the at large berth given they’re top in the RPI and SRS (simple rating system) rankings currently– two of the four criteria for the berth.
8. Queens Gaels (Host)
Overall Record: 8-4 (4-3)
Best Win on Resume: Ottawa (59-47) on Feb. 11
Much like the Carleton Ravens in 2019-20, the Gaels could find themselves in the eighth spot come nationals unless they reach or win the OUA finals. However, this is a team with plenty of depth and quality.
Under new coach Claire Meadows, a former Gaels star and head coach at UBC-Okanagan, Queen’s has a cast of impressive young and veteran players. Their core contributors have been around for a number of seasons, which bodes well in terms of chemistry, cohesion and experience.
Julia Chadwick (16.6 ppg) and Laura Donovan (12.8) are their two leading scorers: two versatile wing players able to score from all spots on the floor and create matchup problems for opposing defences. Veteran guards Emma Weltz and Emma Ritcey provide leadership, experience and a calming presence when it comes to running the Gaels offence.
Post players Sophie de Goede (also the women’s rugby U SPORTS Player of the Year) and Bridget Mulholland give Queen’s a solid presence down low. Third-year guard Isabella Belvedere helps stretch the floor with her third-point shooting (30.8 per cent) while fourth-year guard Michelle Istead provides additional offence.
The Gaels have beaten notable opponents in Western, Laval, Bishop’s and Ottawa while playing the Rams close. Meadows’ squad will look to make a deep playoff run in a tough OUA East division, which would also help with their seeding come nationals.
On the Bubble
Here are a couple more teams to watch out for in the nationals picture.
Carleton Ravens (OUA semi-finalist)
Overall Record: 13-2 (7-2)
Best Win on Resume: Brock (63-62) on Oct. 24
The Carleton Ravens are an interesting case under new head coach Dani Sinclair. They have much of their core returning from the 2019-20 season and have collected some impressive wins so far, beating Laval, Bishop’s (twice), Brock (on the road in the preseason), Concordia and recently cross-town rivals Ottawa in the Capital Hoops Classic. However, their two losses have come to middle-of-the pack York and Laurentian in OUA play.
The team’s strength is in their guard play. Point guard Kali Pocrnic is better than ever in scoring and facilitating, leading the team in points and assists. Fifth-year guard Madison Reid – one of two holdovers along with Emma Kiesekamp from the Ravens 2017-18 historic national title team – is as dangerous as ever with her ability to defend, score off the dribble and hit threes (team-high 36.5 per cent).
Kiesekamp has improved greatly since her rookie season and is a defensive anchor while also providing offence and rebounding. Third-year guard Tatyanna Burke has built upon her solid rookie campaign with her strong two-way play while fellow third-year Dorcas Buisa gives them a spark plug off the bench. Veterans and former childhood teammates Emma Huff and Oceane Kounkou (a transfer from the University of Buffalo) also provide experience and depth.
The Ravens record against the best teams is good. However, if they don’t reach the OUA finals, it will depend how the other conferences shake out to determine if they reach the wild card berth. They had a couple of games scheduled against the Rams that have been postponed and not made up. It would have been another good litmus test for them. Their road to the OUA title – and possibly nationals – might have to run through the Rams down the line.
Fraser Valley Cascades (Canada West semi-finalist)
Overall Record: 15-4 (14-2)
Best Win on Resume: Saskatchewan Huskies (57-46) on Oct. 15
The Cascades have built upon a strong 2019-20 season (16-4 record) and are now atop the Canada West West division with a 14-2 record. Head coach Al Tuchscherer has reached nationals twice in his sixteen years in charge of Fraser Valley – back in 2013 and 2014. Now, with his daughter Deanna leading the way, the team looks poised to make a run at it again.
Deanna Tuschscherer was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school and has performed to those expectations. She’s a force scoring and rebounding while also being able to make plays and shoot the three.
Tuschscherer has a good supporting cast with fellow second-year guard Maddy Gobeil leading the team from the point with her scoring (16.7 ppg), rebounding (team-high 7.3 rbg) and steals (team-high 40). The Cascades have solid contributors in Nikki Cabuco, Natalie Rathler and Alexis Worrell. Al and Deanna are also joined by Deanna’s sister Julia, who sees consistent rotation minutes and contributes in different facets through scoring, post play and assists as a rookie.
The Cascades will have to fend off a strong Trinity Western team in their own division as they hold a 2-1 record against them so far this season. They also have a preseason win against Saskatchewan under their belts. The Spartans are a notable Canada West contender who could make some noise and shake up the bracketology picture come March.
Featured Image: Valerie Wutti via Huskie Athletics