Arguably the most exciting weekend of CIS basketball across the country – the conference championship tournaments – produced a fair share of intrigue and surprise, beginning out west as Thompson Rivers shocked many by knocking off UBC as coach Scott Clark and the Pack qualify for their first ever Final 8. TRU relies heavily on three players, led by 6’11” Josh Wolfram, who is likely the most talented big man in the country with a versatile skill set including the ability to step out and knock down 3’s – he was a legitimate Canada West all-star. 6’8″ Volodymr Iegorov, with several years of professional experience in his native Ukraine, is a 240 pound work horse who opposing coaches have described as a match-up nightmare who can play virtually every position 2 through 5, including making key decisions offensively. 6’0″ fifth-year Victoria transfer Reese Pribilsky is the point guard member of the triumvirate and rarely does a possession happen without at least 2 and usually three getting a touch. 6’5′ Gerard Gore, a native of Antigua, provides support up front and 6’1″ California native Albert Medrano gets time but beyond the first 3 very good players, the next 3 are capable and then the talent level falls off dramatically.
TRU likes to control tempo with a variation of the Princeton offense that relies on reads and back-court cuts with open 3’s resulting from over committing to rim protection. TRU hit 4 consecutive 3’s to jump out to a 12-2 lead in the Gold medal game against Calgary. Defensively, the WolfPack relies heavily on a match-up zone again to control the tempo, minimize total game possessions and keep the Big 3 out of foul trouble.
Against UBC in the Final 8 clinching win, Iegorov gave TRU the lead for good with just over 5 minutes to play, scoring 7 of his 15 late and Wolfram dominated with 23 points and 14 rebounds including 7 in the final 5 minutes. UBC had led by 9 with 4 1/2 minutes left in the third. 6’4″ Will Ondrik, who started his career at Thompson Rivers before transferring, finished with just 7 points in 31 minutes while left Jordan Jensen-Whyte had 19 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Expect Thompson Rivers to play with any team in the Final 8, erasing any doubts across the country including mine.
The Dinos are on fire, having won 17 Canada West regular season and playoff games in a row including playoffs (Calgary did go 1-2 during Christmas at Laval, losing to UNB and uOttawa by 16) and have the highest quality depth in the conference going 12 deep. Canada West Player-of-the-Year and Moser favorite 6’5″ Thomas Cooper is the high-volume shooting offensive force but Dinos can play in any number of ways. Against Manitoba in the all-important CW semi-final, it was a three-point game with 5 1/2 minutes left in the third before Calgary exploded on a 28-3 run including 17 consecutive points during a three minute span early in the fourth. During that short stretch, Bisons were called for 8 fouls and 5 turnovers as Calgary scored 10 of their 17 points from the free throw line; the stretch culminated in technical foul that basically sealed the game. 6’6″ Lars Schleuter presents a tough match-up challenge with his ability to space the floor while underrated David Kapinga continues to make his presence felt as a game-changing defender, helping to force 22 Bison turnovers by jumping in the passing lanes for steals and deflections. Calgary can play in any number of ways given their depth and flexibility.
The Bisons stayed in the game until fairly late but could not quell Calgary’s run as their inexperience in these situations may have been apparent. Manitoba loses only 6’9″ Wyatt Anders with the rest of this athletic group that emerged as formidable challenge awaiting at least two new faces who should immediately support next season including 6’5″ Joey Nitychoruk, the Winnipeg native who is transferring back home from Lakehead for his final two seasons of eligibility – he missed this season with a severe ankle injury but should be ready to next season. Manitoba also adds a high-end recruit in 6’7″ James Wagner, another Winnipeg native who was recruited by about 30 CIS schools and made several visits across the country before settling on his home-town Bisons. This could be the most important recruit in Coach Kirby Schepp‘s tenure at Manitoba and re-affirms the program’s belief in local talent: note that Manitoba had 5 starters from Winnipeg in all games this season.
In the OUA, Neate Sager was among the only scribes to highlight the vital game-changing contribution on the defensive end of 6’8″ Kadeem Green, who completely turned the game around in the third quarter with at least 3 blocks on apparent Carleton lay-ins. Ravens had the tempo in their favor and were leading by double digits when Green’s rim protection energized the crowd and led to easy Ryerson run-outs. While 6’5″ Aaron Best had a strong offensive performance and 6’7″ J.V. Mukama continues to show off his long-range shooting, especially in transition, and his length and anticipation as a defender creating deflections and run-out-creating steals, last night Green’s contribution – at the most opportune time of the game – was the driving force behind only 28 Carleton second-half points and several missed lay-ups.
uOttawa pulled away in the second half to secure what is likely to be a wild-card spot with a win over Windsor. The Lancers spunky 5’11” lefty guard Mike Rocca, picking up from Friday’s game, was on fire early, knocking down 3’s and orchestrating what looked like a possible Windsor upset. It was a four point game midway through the third before Ottawa took over. 6’4″ Isaiah Osborne is rapidly establishing himself as a future star. The Gee-Gees depth and quality shone despite a lackluster performance all weekend from 6’1″ Mike L’Africain.
IN Quebec, McGill won as expected, bouncing back from another tough start shooting to pull ahead in the third quarter to lead by as many as 14 against an improved UQAM squad.