U Sports MBB Final 8 Bracketology: A Two-Horse Race?

HAMILTON, ON – With playoff time just around the corner for most conferences (and already underway in the Canada West), the race to the U Sports men’s basketball nationals continues to heat up. Having looked at the potential women’s field previously, here’s how the men’s bracket is shaping up so far. This version of bracketology is following the great ones done by Neate Sager and the CIS Blog in the past. 

Looking at the teams overall, one could surmise that two rise above the rest: the host Alberta Golden Bears and the defending national champion Carleton Ravens. The Golden Bears, Ravens and RSEQ leader McGill Redbirds remain the only undefeated regular season teams while Alberta is the only team with a perfect record in all games.

The Canada West playoffs – now down to the semi-finals – have whittled down the list of nationals contenders in its conference to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Victoria and Regina. With the Bears getting in automatically due to their host berth, this opens the door for one more Canada West team to get in automatically (three overall). The fourth-place team could also be in the mix for the at-large berth depending on the other conference playoffs. 

Out in Ontario, the Brock Badgers are atop the OUA West Division with a chance to punch their ticket to nationals by winning the division while the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Queen’s Gaels look to provide some stiff competition for Carleton and should both be in the mix for the at-large berth. In Quebec, despite the lesser number of games, if McGill can run the table, they have a chance to move up to the fourth or fifth spot. 

Speaking of the at-large berth, the criteria for selecting the wild card team has shortened from 2019-20 down to only five factors: final regular season conference record, strength of schedule (RPI), Top 10 Rankings (average throughout season), playoff performance and games versus other teams in consideration for nationals. Here’s how the bracket looks as of Mar. 6, 2022. 

Tyus Jefferson (Photo: Nina Barroso/Alberta Athletics)

1.Alberta Golden Bears (host and hypothetical Canada West champion)

Overall Record: 23-0 (16-0 conference regular season record)

Best Win on Resume: UBC Thunderbirds (74-66) on Oct. 15

The Golden Bears under head coach Barnaby Craddock in the past decade have been the epitome of excellence in the Canada West. Alberta has won the Canada West title twice in the past seven seasons and has reached nationals four years in a row (about to be five this year). Yet, for all their previous highs, this might be their best team yet. 

The team bade farewell to fifth-year seniors Brody Clarke, D’Wan Williams and Ivan Ikomey but haven’t skipped a beat, running the table in Canada West action. In addition to winning their division, the Golden Bears also have victories over strong Canada West sides such as Regina, Saskatchewan and UBC.

Their strength starts with their backcourt, featuring two Canada West all-stars in Tyus Jefferson and Geoffrey James, who have taken on the lead scoring role as well as playmaking. The two guards are first and second on the team in points and assists. Third-year forward Adam Paige helps anchor things down low.

The Bears are near the top of the conference in numerous statistical categories such as net efficiency and lead the Canada West in least points allowed per game. Their depth plays a major role in that with a lot of experienced veterans. Seven players average at least eight points per game while four players average over five rebounds per game. 

If they do win the conference, it will likely come down to them or Carleton (or the OUA champ) for the number one seed. At the very least, they will be a top two seed with serious aspirations of winning Craddock’s first national title. 

2. Carleton Ravens (OUA champion)

Overall Record: 18-1 (12-0)

Best Win on Resume: Ottawa Gee-Gees (71-58) on Feb. 18

Like the Golden Bears, the Ravens have stayed on top of their conference despite losing many key players since 2019-20. Marcus Anderson, Munis Tutu, Yasiin Joseph, TJ Lall and Isiah Osborne all had a great impact on their previous championship teams. In their place, the next generation have stepped up. 

Lloyd Pandi has continued to build upon his stellar rookie season and his CEBL experience, leading the team in points (14.3) and rebounds per game (7.3). Pandi has shown an ability to score inside, crash the glass and guard the opponents’ big men.  Plus, he can shoot the three at a high clip (46.2 per cent on 26 attempts). The scary part of it all? He still has three years of eligibility after this. 

Carleton’s strength comes from their guards. Alain Louis has kept elevating his game to the next level as a strong finisher and playmaker. His absence was felt in the Ravens recent games against Toronto, which were close wins. Aiden Warnholtz is seeing a bigger role than ever in his role as a floor general while Connor Vreeken helps the Ravens space the floor with his spot-up shooting. The performance of their posts in Biniam Ghebrekidan and Grant Shephard will be an X-factor to how well the Ravens do.

While Taffe Charles’ squad is undefeated in conference play – with two wins over cross-town rival Ottawa – they have shown moments of inconsistency on both ends of the floor, including with Louis out. It will be interesting to see how a playoff rematch with Ottawa would unfold and if they play the OUA West leading Badgers. If they win the OUA, it will be a toss up between them and Alberta for the first seed. 

3. Victoria Vikes (Canada West finalist)

Overall Record: 21-1 (17-1)

Best Win on Resume: UBC Thunderbirds (96-89) on Feb. 5

The most serious challenger to Alberta’s Canada West title hopes is arguably Victoria. The Vikes have a higher net, offensive and defensive efficiency than the Golden Bears while shooting the ball better from three and overall. Head coach Craig Beaucamp – now in his 19th season – has done well in helping the Vikes build upon a strong 2019-20 season (15-5 record). 

One of the keys to their success is the contributions they’ve received from both their younger and older players. On one hand, there’s second-year guard Diego Maffia, who tops the team in scoring as well as Boxscore Production (calculated by SFU basketball analyst Denis Beausoleil). On the other hand, there’s fifth-year forward and Calgary transfer Matthew Ellis, who contributes in many different ways and is second on the team in Boxscore Production. 

The Vikes were well-represented in all-star awards. Maffia was recognized for his strong play with a Canada West second-team all star spot. Freshmen Ethan Boag and Elias Ralph notched places on the all-rookie team. Meanwhile, fifth-year American forward Scott Kellum finished as a first-team all-star. Western Washington transfer Dominick Oliveri provides a strong presence inside, leading the team with 165 rebounds. With so much young talent, the future promises to be bright on the island. 

The Vikes have yet to match up with Alberta but could get their chance in the Canada West title game. If they win, it’s likely they could be a top two seed while even if they lose, they figure to slot in around 3-4. 

TJ Lall (Photo: Brock Athletics)

4. Brock Badgers (OUA finalist)

Overall Record: 19-1 (14-1)

Best Win on Resume: Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks (95-74) on Nov. 6

Head coach Willy Maniget came into the Brock job three years ago having spent years in the nation’s capital as a player (with Ottawa and Carleton) and as an assistant coach (Carleton). He won numerous OUA and national championships and now has the Badgers among the contenders to do the same. 

Not surprisingly, there’s a Carleton flavour to the roster with former Ravens TJ Lall and Emmanuel Owootoah having a notable role on this Brock team. The Badgers also boast a number of returning veterans in Kascius Small-Martin, Godsman Kwakwah, Daniel Cayer and Daniel Caldwell. 

Brock has only lost once so far this season – a road loss to McMaster – and are second to only Carleton in net and offensive efficiency in the OUA. The Badgers do lead the league in points-per-game though (93.1). The road through the OUA West won’t be easy, with the Marauders looming down the line. However, if they do reach the OUA finals, Manigat might have his chance to beat his former team. Same as the Vikes, if Brock wins the OUA, they might jump into the top two. However, if they lose, they will end up in the 3-5 range. 

5. Dalhousie Tigers (AUS champion)

Overall Record: 16-4 (9-2)

Best Win on Resume: Saint Mary’s Huskies (86-60) on Feb. 19

The Tigers almost pulled out a national championship upset versus Carleton in the U Sports finals in 2020, only to fall just short. While this year’s Dalhousie squad may not be as formidable as that one, they have shown themselves to be the top dogs in the AUS so far. 

Keevan Veinot (Photo: Nick Pearce)

Rick Plato’s roster features plenty of first years (10 in total) but their main contributors are still their veterans. Alex Carson and Keevan Veinot provide a potent guard-post combo. Fourth-year guard Shamar Burrows continues to grow in his role inside and out, leading the side in rebounds while also averaging 14.2 ppg. First-year guard Nginyu Ngagla has made an impact with his scoring and playmaking. 

Dalhousie remains the favourites to emerge from the AUS, although they won lost twice this season already (once to UPEI, once to Memorial). If they win the AUS title, they would slide in as a 2-5 seed. I have them at number five given the strength of Victoria and Brock’s seasons. If they don’t win the AUS, they should be among the favourites for the at-large berth. 

6. McGill Redbirds (RSEQ champion)
Overall Record: 9-3 (8-0)

Best Win on Resume: Concordia Stingers (77-62) on Nov. 11

McGill has been the class of the RSEQ conference not that long ago, winning three straight conference titles from 2016-2018 under former head coach Dave DeAveiro. After DeAveiro left for the Rams, the Redbirds have continued that conference success under new head coach Ryan Thorne – who was the long-time coach of the McGill women’s team. 

Thorne led the women’s squad to a national title in 2017. This season, his men’s remain undefeated in conference play and are favourites to win the conference. They’ve beaten all their RSEQ opponents at least once this season. The Redbirds have also had close losses to Ottawa and Queen’s in the preseason. 

Jamal Mayali (Matt Garies/McGill Athletics)

Two of their primary players are holdovers from the DeAveiro era in fourth-year guards Jamal Mayali and Sam Jenkins. Both have grown in their roles over the years into the go-to players for McGill on both ends of the court. First-year Bosnian forward Haris Elezovic is enjoying a standout season, pacing the team with eight rebounds per game while also adding 9.8 ppg on 40.8 per cent shooting from the field. Hybrid guard/forward Quarry Whyne adds versatility while Sidney Gauthier is also having a solid rookie season.

Like they did under DeAveiro, the team continues to recruit from the local CEGEP league as they are integrating 10 first-year players. The Redbirds under Thorne are rolling on with their winning ways. However, given their lack of top-quality wins and lack of games, if they or another team wins the RSEQ, they seem destined for the sixth seed at nationals. 

7. Saskatchewan Huskies (Canada West semi-finalist + auto berth)

Overall Record: 16-6 (11-5)

Best Win on Resume: Regina Cougars (90-80) on Nov. 27

If you did the bracketology only a week ago, you could surmise it was a toss-up between Saskatchewan or UBC for the other Canada West auto berth at nationals (assuming Alberta makes the finals). One week later, the Huskies have knocked off the Thunderbirds to reach the Canada West semi-finals and put themselves in the driver’s seat for the auto berth – and possibly even further. 

Flash back 12 years ago and one could see some similarities between that historic 2010 national title team and this one. That team was led by American superstar guard Showron Glover, who was a First-team All-Canadian (as well as the school’s all-time leading ppg scorer). Now, this Huskies team is led offensively by American guard Marquavian Stephens, a transfer from Southwestern College. 

Stephens has carried the scoring load for Saskatchewan and also contributes all-around as well. He is sixth in Canada West Boxscore Production and leads his team in points, assists and steals while also averaging 4.6 rebounds per game. Former Canada West All-Rookie team member Alexander Dewar provides support with his well-rounded game while Bishop’s transfer Nervens Demosthene has also made an instant impact. Fourth-year forwards Chan De Ciman and Maxwell Amoafo led the team in rebounding. 

Demosthene also brings with him experience from the 2020 nationals for a Huskies squad that has continued to improve over the past four seasons. A semi-final meeting with Alberta awaits but they could still clinch their spot at nationals with a loss. However, given the teams above them and the AUS and RSEQ conference champions being sixth or higher, it likely means the Huskies will end up as the seventh or eighth seed. 

8. Ottawa Gee-Gees (At Large berth)

Overall Record: 18-2 (12-2)

Best Win on Resume: Queen’s Gaels (77-63) on Feb. 11

Head coach James Derouin’s Gee-Gees are right in the mix of the top teams in the OUA and the country for that matter – ranked third in the U Sports rankings. However, given their losses to Carleton and the fact Carleton still likely stands in their way in the OUA playoffs, Ottawa may have to rely on the at-large berth to reach nationals. 

The team has shown the capability to get in automatically though, having just come off a narrow 64-59 defeat to the Ravens at home. Ottawa is littered with quality players and depth at both the guard and post positions. Much of the core also carries their experience from hosting the 2020 nationals.

Stretch forward Guillaume Pepin is having a career-season after spending last summer with the Ottawa Blackjacks. Northeastern transfer Maxime Boursiquot has made a smooth transition to U Sports, contributing with his scoring (13.3 ppg), rebounds (5.3 rpg) and even steals (team-high 53). 

The Gee-Gees mix of flexible guards and forwards make them a tough opponent, including Quincy Louis-Jeane, Gage Sabean, Josh Inkumsh, Kevin Civil and Cole Newton. The big question as always is whether they can harness the learning lessons from their Carleton losses come OUA playoff and possibly nationals time. 

In terms of seeding, if they do get in as the at-large berth, they are likely stuck as the seventh or eighth seed, set to face the Canada West champions in the first round. 

On the Bubble:

Here are a couple more teams that figure to be in the nationals picture. 

Queen’s Gaels (OUA playoffs)

Overall Record: 13-3 (9-3)

Best Win on Resume: The Rams (87-81) on Nov. 5

The Gaels are a team that has showed flashes of promise and being able to challenge Ottawa and Carleton in the OUA East. However, until they actual take down one or both of those teams to reach an OUA finals, they could very well be on the outside looking in come nationals. 

The good news for Steph Barrie’s side is the talent is there and they have shown it. Brothers Cole and Luka Syllas were solid contributors in their rookie seasons in 2019-20 but have taken an even bigger leap now. Cole in particular is the Gaels go-to player, leading the squad in points, rebounds, steals and assists. 

Aside from the Syllas brothers, veterans Quinton Gray, Cameron Bett and Henry Van Herk also provide ample support. The Gaels have four players averaging double-figure points-per-game and five averaging over five rebounds-per-game. Their size and length can cause teams problems. 

Aside from a couple of season-opening wins over the Rams, Queen’s just doesn’t have a signature win on their resume yet. They lost a couple of close games to Ottawa and still have two games against Carleton to close out the regular season. Those will serve as a good litmus test for what they need to do come playoff time to reach nationals. 

Regina Cougars (Canada West semi-finalist)

Overall Record: 17-7 (12-4)

Best Win on Resume: Carleton Ravens (82-80) on Oct. 16

The only team to beat the Ravens this season was Regina, who pulled off an 82-80 thriller in the Rouge et Or tournament in October. Since then, head coach Steve Burrow’s side has continued their strong play, having beaten rivals Saskatchewan three times and other division foes as well. 

Rebounding is one of their calling cards as they lead the Canada West in rebounds per game (47.4). That ability to crash the boards and create second chance points will be valuable down the line. Two of their leaders in rebounding are fourth-year forwards and Regina natives Carter Millar and Majok Madol. Millar also leads the team in scoring and was named a third-team conference all-star. 

Their best player arguably is Benjamin Hillis, a first-team all-star – also a Regina native. Hillis is excellent in all facets of the game from scoring (13.6 ppg), rebounds (5.7 rpg) and playmaking (team-high 111 assists). Veteran guards Brayden Kuski and Josiah Thomas also help with the scoring load.

Given their strong conference record and wins over Saskatchewan and Carleton, the Cougars will be in the mix for the at-large berth if they lose to Victoria in the Canada West semi-finals. However, don’t count out their chances to beat the Vikes and clinch their spot in nationals directly. 

Featured Image: Valerie Wutti/Carleton Athletics.

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