The evolution of a nationals-contending program moves to that difficult step of true legitimacy this evening as the rampaging Manitoba Bisons – a deep, athletic, veteran crew with solid guards, a knock-down shooter, a dynamic defending/rebounding/above-the-rim wing and two solid posts – tangle with cross-town rival Winnipeg Wesmen in the men’s basketball portion of the 25th annual Duckworth Challenge.
For the Bisons (15-10 overall, 11-5 in Canada West) a victory tonight at home and tomorrow night at the Duckworth Center at U of Winnipeg would place Kirby Schepp‘s squad in a position to obtain a first-round bye in the Canada West playoffs and, more importantly, home court advantage in a Best-of-3 quarter-final series. A victory in that series results in a trip to the Canada West Final Four.
Manitoba has a solid back court with 6’3″ third year guard Justus Alleyn and knock down shooter 5’11” A.J. Basi. Up front fifth-year 6’7″ post Wyatt Anders (Pioneer Division leading 10 rebounds per game but missed last week’s second game vs. Regina) and 6’7″ fourth-year forward Brett Jewell. But the underlying key to any success Manitoba may have in big games against the top teams starts and ends with 6’4″ Keith Omoerah, one of the finest all-round athletes in the country, who can defend, rebound, get out in transition and score. Omoerah was the Wesmen Classic MVP and had 18 points and 14 rebounds when these teams last met in the semi-finals of that tournament, a game won 76-70 by the Bisons on the way to the tournament championship. A strong effort from Omoerah is needed not only this weekend, but his play has to match up with the best players from the top tier teams in CW for Manitoba to have a chance at the conference title.
But the Wesmen (9-5 in Canada West league play) have other ideas. Winnipeg has won 6 in a row and after this weekend finishes with two home games with Lethbridge followed by a pair in Vancouver at UBC where the T-Birds will be seeking home court advantage in the Canada West Final Four. Last weekend, the Wesmen pulled away for a pair of tough wins over an under-rated Saskatchewan Huskies side as 6’3″ Denzel Lynch-Blair had over 20 points in both games. 6’7″ Jelane Pryce complements the slick wing from Toronto.
Expect an overflow crowd for both games this weekend in Winnipeg which, as it has for many years, continues to support CIS basketball with large crowds, creative promotion and now two teams who are in the thick of the Pioneer Division race.
Other games with playoff implications tonight include Victoria (7-9) at Regina (8-6) and Lethbridge (9-5) at Calgary (12-3). Both Alberta (7-8) and Saskatchewan (4-10) have home dates against Trinity Western and Brandon.
Anything less than a split in Regina will put a gigantic crimp in the Vikes playoff hopes – Vikes finish with a pair of home games with Brandon but two losses this weekend puts them at 11 for the season with 10-10 a bare minimum for a playoff spot by the way things are shaping up. Cougars almost certainly need at least one win this weekend, given that they finish at Calgary for two and then host Saskatchewan.
The Golden Bears desperately need two wins this weekend which is achievable but then travel to Saskatchewan for a pair and finish at home against first-place Calgary. Again, with 8 losses already, the margin for error is slim for Alberta.
Saskatchewan simply needs to win all 6 of their remaining games and then hope for a strong tie-breaking scenario. Two-game series remaining are Brandon and Alberta at home and then at Regina to complete the regular season.
Virtually no one would have projected at the start of the season that as many as two of Alberta, Victoria and Saskatchewan could miss the Canada West playoffs but that possibility firmly exists.
Pioneer Division Standings
Trinity Western 1-13