The greatest conference championship event in the country – passionate fans, great venue, solid attendance, great teams with parity and colorful coaches and players make the AUS tournament the Canadian equivalent to the ACC tournament down south. Last season’s three days were among the most exciting in recent memory with a pair of upstarts in Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie tangling for the tournament championship with the Tigers using an impressive victory as the foundation for a solid first-round showing against UVic in the Final 8 and a first-place AUS finish this season.
Halifax remains the CIS basketball capital of Canada in many observers minds across the country given the warm hospitality of those in Atlantic Canada and the passion for University sports exhibited by fans, media, officials, players and coaches. While I am certain that UBC/Vancouver will do a tremendous job with the Final 8 this season, I am just as anxious to return to the place where so many great CIS memories and relationships have been formed over the past 3-4 decades.
Tomorrow night’s first round begins with a 6:30 PM AT/5:30 PM ET match between #5 Saint Mary’s and #4 UNB which promises to be a contrast of styles with UNB’s draw-and-kick game setting up their perimeter shooting (V-Reds averaged 25 3’s attempted in the 4 games between the 2 teams this season going 36 for 100) vs. Saint Mary’s ability to get to the rim, pound it inside to their bigger more athletic front line and attack the offensive glass. The Huskies out rebounded UNB is all 4 games by an average of 46-33 as 6’8″ Osman Barrie had double/doubles in all 4 games, highlighted by a 36-point, 10-rebound effort in November at UNB. The Huskies made their now-customary late January, February run to the tournament, winning 6 of 8 games after a 4-7 start put them in a position to miss the tournament. 6’3″ Brian Rouse has been the most consistent Huskie and has been especially good against UNB – the teams split 4 games 2-2 in the regular season, most recent of which was 5-6 February in Halifax. In 3 games against the V-Reds, Rouse averaged 25.7 ppg including 31 and 11 in a 107-97 loss at home followed by 26 the following afternoon in a win. The Reds remained near the top of the standings and had a chance for a first-round bye right up to the final night of the season but could not win the second of a back-to-back against a rested Acadia team and fell to 4th spot. Probable AUS MVP Javon Masters – author of three 40+ point game in the AUS regular season – had his season-high of 43 in UNB’s most recent win at the Homburg Center. Masters averaged a ridiculous 33.5 ppg vs. Saint Mary’s in the 4 games, well above his season average of 28 ppg. Huskies perennial all-conference guard Marquis Clayton, who suffered through an injury-riddled 2015-16 season, missed both game between the 2 teams in February and is just now getting back to game shape/timing.
In the night-cap, #3 Acadia, coming off a wonderful bounce-back season after missing the tournament in ’14-’15, meets #6 Cape Breton and, while Axemen captured three of the four league games played between the two teams this season – plus a preseason win, all of Acadia’s wins were tight. In the most recent game in Wolfville, 6’8″ Meshack Lufile sent the game into OT with a last second basket but Acadia, behind 6’3″ Ben Miller‘s 7 extra-session points including a dagger 3, prevailed 87-79. Much like the SMU/UNB match-up, one team – the Capers – dominated the glass in the series. CBU won the rebounding battle in all 4 league games (average 48-37 on the glass) with Lufile especially dominant inside, highlighted by an 18-point, 14-rebound effort in Capers only win over Acadia this season. Capers will do well to account for 6’5″ Kyle Arsenault as the slick shooting wing averaged 23 points per game in the 3 Axemen wins including 10-18 from 3 but had only 8 in the one loss. Lufile and Co. up front have given 6’9″ lefty newcomer Erik Nissen trouble all season – Nissen fouled out of two games and was in foul trouble with 4 in another. The exciting post Nissen did drive home the go-ahead dunk late in the first meeting of the season between the two teams. Capers star 6’5″ wing Kenny Jean-Louis, one of the more complete offensive players in the conference who authored several near-triple-doubles during the season, averaged a very pedestrian 12 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists against Acadia in the four games.
Two evenly-matched games with contrasting styles present some intrigue as #1 Dalhousie and #2 UPEI wait in the wings in Friday’s semi-finals.