Saskatchewan held their number one ranking this weekend after winning their 19th and 20th straight games against Calgary and are the apparent favourite going into the Canada West tournament, where one team will emerge with an automatic bid to the CIS tournament.
And, for the first time in three years, we can be assured that the champion won't be SFU (who are managing a 4-12 conference record in NAIA Division II), which makes the playoffs all that more fun, since it isn't just a slog until we crown the same champions in Windsor.
#1 Saskatchewan Huskies (CIS #1) vs. #8 Calgary Dinos
The Dinos snuck in to the postseason despite having lost their last four games, beating a playoff opponent just once (UFV) over the course of the year. Saskatchewan hold the league's best offense at 78 points a game and its third best defense at 59.5 per. The fifth year vet Kim Tulloch hit 50% of her shots this year, led the league in scoring at 17 points per game, and commands a balanced team with some impressive speed, particularly from SFU transfer Katie Miyazaki, who fit in very well in Lisa Thomaidis' offense this year.
However, if the Huskies do have a weakness, it comes in rebounding. The Huskies were fifth in rebounding margin this year, behind playoff teams exclusively, with Calgary coming in at third place. The Huskies tend to not grab a lot of offensive rebounds (it's hard when you hit most of your shots) so if those shots don't fall, Calgary has some size in the forward positions with six players over 6 feet who saw significant minutes this year. Offensively, Tamara Jarrett runs the floor very well but has limited weapons, notably top scorer Ashley Hill and post Alex Cole.
Likelihood of an upset? Slim. A lot has to go right for Calgary and then some, since Saskatchewan put up top numbers despite being able to use their bench in all the blowout games they were on. Saskatchewan takes this series in two and hosts the Canada West Final Four next weekend.
#2 Winnipeg Wesmen (9) vs. #7 UFV Cascades
The Cascades were in full rebuild mode last season, and it paid off this year with the school's first playoff appearance. Other than one notable win over Alberta, they were shutout against the big six Canada West teams, but registered close margins against Saskatchewan and Victoria in back-to-back weeks.
This could be a fun little series, since both teams love to shoot from three-point range, with varying degrees of success. Only Thompson Rivers shot more (511) from beyond the arc than UFV (489) and Winnipeg (485) did in conference play. Winnipeg's Caitlin Gooch thrives in this area, averaging just over three made per game. That may be UFV's only resort, since Winnipeg zones up well and forces bad shots. They were the top defense in the league (57.8 points) and were second in shooting defense.
Likelihood of an upset? Pretty slim here as well. UFV has been a pleasant surprise, but Winnipeg matches up very well against a shooting team like the Cascades, who don't have a lot of size under the rim. Should a game get close? Winnipeg are ice cold, and were second in the league in free throws at 72.5 per cent, and we know how big those are in tight games.
Regardless of what happens to UFV, head coach Al Tuchscherer has a lot to be proud of, turning a 2-16 campaign one-year ago to a 12-12 one.
#3 Regina Cougars (4) vs. #6 Victoria Vikes
The Vikes sort of limped in to the playoffs, losing four straight, without their star forward Kayla Dykstra and falling to the sixth seed, and drawing a tough matchup with Regina, who are probably the conference's second best team (but we'll let next week be the arbiter of that one). The Vikes had a marginally better defense than the Cougars this year (60.1 to 61.2 points) but the Cougars were second to Saskatchewan in scoring margin and led the league in shooting defense and rebounding. In Victoria's losses here in Kamloops this year, getting to loose balls was a problem, and whether they've worn tired legs at this point in the season, they're going to have to shoot a lot better than 28.4 per cent, which they managed the first time they played Regina and were subsequently clobbered.
Third-year guard Joanna Zalesiak's name popped into this column many times this season, not undeservedly so: She was second in the conference in points (16.3) and assists (4.6) although did turn over the ball a league-leading 113 times.
Likelihood of an upset? Even with Dykstra in the lineup, Regina is too good of a team to fall and would probably handle Victoria. Without? Well...
#4 Alberta Pandas (10) vs. #5 UBC Thunderbirds
The teams came in tied with record 17-7, but UBC's record against playoff teams under the full moon was slightly better, and thus, due to Canada West's overly complicated tie-breaking procedure, we have a repeat of last year's lone 3-game series at the same venue at the University of Alberta's Main Gym in Edmonton.
While official tournament rules state that teams may dress twelve players, Alberta have been down to eight for a good chunk of the second half--but that doesn't mean a lack of scoring depth. Alberta did manage the second best offense in the league and are still managing over 70 points since Santa has been to town. Georgia Popovici has been a good reason why, averaging 10.6 points a game and 6.2 boards, while Marisa Haylett and Nicole Clarke boast solid point and free throw totals, making them a threat in close games. Haylett (former Kitsilano Blue Demon, swapping the gold and blue for green and gold) is also a three-point and assist threat, which should make her tough to defend.
However, UBC boasts one of the premier point guards in the league in Devan Lisson, with a 1.6 assist to turnover ratio, fourth in assists and also manages 9.4 points a game. She has threats on either side in Lia St. Pierre and Alex Vieweg, while Zara Huntley should match up well against Popovici who gives away an inch to the UBC duel threat, a top shot blocker and tap-in specialist.
Likelihood of an upset? Severe, depending on who you think the favourite is. UBC certainly looked on form against Victoria this weekend and have a well-groomed offense working against a middle-of-the-pack defense. That said, while I hate to use the term "heart", Alberta has certainly shown a lot of that recently. No surprise that this is a series that SSN Canada picked up, and the action gets underway tomorrow at 5:00 pm local time.