One of the least-kept secrets over the past month or so was the decision by the OUA via a series of votes to once again revise the format of OUA basketball back to two divisions: East and West. East Division will consist of 8 teams (7 “originals” + Nipissing) and West will have 9 teams (8 “originals” + Algoma). Note that when Algoma originally joined the OUA in 2013-14, they joined OUA East.
My current understanding is that regular season will consist of home/home series within the division and single games against each team in the other division. As such, OUA East teams will play 23 games (2 x 7 games intra-division + 9 outside their division) while OUA West teams will play 24 games (2 x 8 games intra-division + 8 outside their division).
Neate Sager at Cisblog.ca has already outlined how this new format is poised to stifle the ability of the conference to have the best teams to compete for one of two guaranteed Final 8 spots. Specifically quoting Neate’s outstanding piece:
it’s not hard to read some OUA politics into a decision that would put Carleton, Ottawa and Ryerson in the same division with no mechanism for all three to be in the final four with a chance to go to nationals (as long as there’s only one at-large berth, the seeding committee is probably not going to have the stones to pick a Top 5 team which was a quarter-finalist; just ask UBC).
For the past three OUA seasons, with the shift to a four division structure, prevailing playoff formats helped ensure that the best four teams in the conference, regardless of which division they came from, competed for the Wilson Cup and the two automatic bids to the Final 8 would be represented by the two best teams – again regardless of division.
In those three seasons, Carleton, Ryerson and Ottawa all participated in the OUA Final 4 and, according to National rankings, regular season results and, frankly, the eye test, these three teams by any measure were worthy of a Wilson Cup Final 4 berth. As well, in two of those seasons (’14-’15 & ’15-’16), the Wilson Cup Bronze medal winner was awarded the “at-large” berth at the Nationals – and to very little debate – in both of those seasons Carleton, Ottawa and Ryerson were ranked in the Top 5 virtually all season. This season, amid a storm of controversy, Brock was edged out of the Nationals despite a top 10 ranking for the entire season.
The new OUA format dictates that playoff series will remain within each division until the top 2 teams from each division are determined. At that point – if history is a guide – teams will cross-over i.e. OUA West #2 at OUA East #1 and OUA East #2 at OUA West #1 in a single game elimination (to be played on a Wednesday night). The two winners of the semi-finals will advance to the OUA Wilson Cup championship game and, very likely, a Third Place game will be played, both on the Saturday after the semi-finals. Again, if history is a guide, the home game for the Wilson Cup final will alternate between East and West.
As Neate properly alludes to, assuming Carleton, Ryerson and Ottawa continue to be the three best teams by record in the OUA, one of those teams will very likely be denied a spot at the Nationals regardless of season ranking and which teams they may have previously defeated that, strictly because of the format, they will not have a chance to play during the playoffs.
This new format has at least two programs exploring situations that are founded in a more competitive environment and thus be more beneficial to their student/athletes. For over a decade, uOttawa Gee-Gees have worked to align their athletic programs with those in Quebec. Indeed several years ago under former Athletic Director Luc Gelineau, uOttawa formally applied to join RSEQ for reasons including the university’s French-Canadian focus, reduction in travel costs and, most prominently, a strategic alignment that Gelineau had with RSEQ regarding athletic scholarships – Gelineau’s view was that Quebec’s financial-aid policies for athletics were more progressive than OUA’s. Unfortunately, the overtures by uOttawa at that time were turned down. More recently, Gee-Gees women’s volleyball did make the move from OUA to RSEQ beginning this past season – establishing a precedence at the university and with the Quebec league allowing an Ontario school to their conference. Recall also that Bishop’s football program has left to play in the AUS. Informal dialogue with RSEQ men’s basketball officials uncovered that Gee-Gees would likely be welcomed into their conference, if only to increase the number of opponents Quebec league teams would have. Regardless, a move to RSEQ basketball league appears to be a viable alternative for the Gee-Gees.
Ryerson Rams arguably have, in recent past, been the men’s basketball program most negatively affected by the two-division format and resulting playoff bracket. In the each of the prior two seasons that deployed the two-division format (2013-14 and 2012-13), Ryerson (16-6 in ’13-’14 and 15-5 in ’12-’13: both 3rd place finishes in the East and minimum 4th best record in entire OUA) had to travel to Ottawa for an OUA quarter-final to face Top 3 nationally Gee-Gees team. Both seasons, Rams lost final-possession, quarter-final road games that eliminated them from the post-season with no chance at redemption against teams in the West with similar or even weaker records.
Rams clearly were among the multiple OUA teams not in favor of the return to the old format and are also a candidate to look for greener pastures that fit their “continual striving for excellence”. Head Coach Roy Rana shared that Rams are “always looking to provide the best experience for our student athletes and looking for the most competitive situations which in the long run we think are best for them.” To that end, Rana explained that, just like the Gee-Gees, “we will continue to explore other avenues including NCAA, NAIA or whatever puts our student/athletes in the best possible competitive situation”.
The change in structure takes us back almost full circle to how things were in the late 90’s when, as late as 2000-01, OUA East and OUA West teams did not even play inter-division games. Each league simply played a pair of home-and-home games for a 14 game regular season with virtually every league game played after Christmas. OUA West games typically were played Wednesday and Saturday.
In 2001-02, OUA format changed to a single game interlock – each team’s regular season schedule jumped to 22 games with inter-division games played before Christmas – but still without any playoff cross-over until the Wilson Cup championship game – OUA East and OUA West playoff champions received the two conference automatic bids. In those early days, OUA West teams dominated the inter-lock, but with the advent to elite programs by Carleton and Ottawa especially, results changed fairly rapidly. By 2009-10, OUA format evolved to a cross-over at the Wilson Cup semi-final and continued that way until 2013-14.
Now after a three-year stint during which it is commonly accepted that the OUA has qualified their two best teams, regardless of division, and, in the 2 of the 3 seasons, the third place team made the Nationals via wild card, the conference in many people’s eyes is regressing back to questionable formats of days gone by. Unfortunately, it appears that the choice by some OUA members to do so could at some point have adverse affects on the elite competitive level of the entire OUA conference and potentially result in a smaller, less competitive league in need of yet another format change.