Friday, December 16, 2011

With exams coming to a close and the winter break upon us, it won't be long before many CIS teams are playing in mid-season tournaments and preparing for the stretch drive of the second semester season. But before we start looking ahead to the holiday tournaments and second half games, it's time to make like professors and TAs and start dishing out the first-half grades. How have the teams done in their pursuit of athletic excellence?

Cam Charron takes us through the wild, wild Canada West University Athletic Association.


There's been a surprising bit of parity in Canada West this season, with a fair number of upsets and teams that probably don't deserve to be hanging around a playoff race hanging around a playoff race.

ALBERTA GOLDEN BEARS
6-2, 1st East Division, Ranked #6 Nationwide
RPI: #1 (Canada West), #3 (Nationwide)
+9.8 Point differential, 4th Pythagorean

The first-half winners are the Golden Bears, who lead their division thanks to a pair of wins over Saskatchewan and boast the second-highest scorer (21.5 ppg) in the Conference in Jordan Baker, who also leads in rebounds (10.8) and is second in steals (2.8). They also lead in RPI thanks to a slightly higher strength of schedule than Saskatchewan, and the two remain pretty close in talent level overall. Alberta, despite having trouble putting the ball in the basket compared to some of the other top teams, lead the Canada West conference in team defense. Daniel Ferguson has also become a huge part of the offense, scoring 19.1 points per game, also carrying the load in minutes.

Their keys going into the second half are finding more scoring depth and rebounding, but the defensive system in place thanks to Greg Francis has really helped keeping opponents off the board and shooting below 40%. The biggest of tests face the Golden Bears when the return to classes, as they'll play UBC at War Memorial. That should be an excellent game, pitting a top offense against a top defense.

SASKATCHEWAN HUSKIES
5-2, 2nd East Division, Ranked #4 Nationwide
RPI: #2 (Canada West), #4 (Nationwide)
+21.1 Point differential, 3rd Pythagorean

The big story with the Huskies has been the play of Jamelle Barrett, who sat out some time to injury and only in the last two games has showed the form he displayed as arguably the nation's top player last season. He's put up 17.2 points per game in just over 30 minutes, with much of the scoring load being dished off to Duncan Jones, Peter Lomuro and Michael Lieffers. The Huskies are the conference's top shooting team and are strong on both sides of the ball (3rd in both offense and defense) in the team's second season under Barry Rawlyk.

Keeping Barrett healthy and going is important going into the second half, but what I like about this team is that they have the depth that Alberta and UBC don't have, particularly on offense. They have 8 players with at least 5 points per game and can beat you with their bench and a number of very good field goal percentage guys (Lieffers is 31-51, Evan Ostertag 15-23 and Chris Unsworth 18-31).

VICTORIA VIKES
8-0, 1st West Division, Ranked #5 Nationwide
RPI: #3 (CW), #5 (Nationwide)
+13.5 Point differential, 2nd Pythagorean

The only thing keeping Victoria from being higher is their pretty flimsy schedule so far, having only beaten Trinity Western as a team of any sort of national aspirations, but they've done everything the schedule-makers have asked them to, and are .2 points per game back of Alberta for the best first-half defense. They recently held a high-flying Thompson Rivers offense to below 80 points twice, Lethbridge to 59 (severely cutting that team's offensive ranking) and have won six games by a double-digit margin.

Ryan MacKinnon is third in the conference in scoring, and the speedy point guard has really taken over every game the Vikes have played this season, with a game-high in points in every one. Victoria also repeatedly beat their opponents under the basket. The team is second in rebounding percentage, but the responsibility is spread around: Mike Berg and Zac Andrus have each averaged more than five per game, which is exceptional when you consider that Victoria is good at sinking their own shots (49.9%) and their defense ranges more on preventing shots than forcing their opponents to bad shots (they're 7th in shooting defense).

This is a very good team. They get to play Saskatchewan in their first game back, and if they can carry their record to 9-0, they should earn an extra spot in RPI. They're a team that impressed on the weak half of their schedule. It's time to see if they can keep it up playing against the big boys.

UBC THUNDERBIRDS
4-2, 3rd West Division, Ranked #7 Nationwide
RPI: #8 (CW) #18 (Nationwide)
+18.3 Point differential, 1st Pythagorean

Despite the gaudy RPI rank, I couldn't keep the Thunderbirds off this list very long, simply by virtue of them crushing every opponent they've faced, minus the two they faced in their recent Alberta road trip, dropping consecutive decisions to Lethbridge and Calgary. RPI doesn't factor in Pythagorean expectation, which is excellent to judge how good the quality of a team is. They crushed Trinity Western twice, but the bigger test will be when they start facing some better competition. They've had a cupcake schedule and haven't even come out undefeated.

They average 93.8 points per game, most of that coming from their top-heavy lineup of Nathan Yu, Doug Plumb and Tommy Nixon. We haven't seen a lot of scoring with Kamar Burke, but him and Balraj Bains have been relied upon heavily under the basket, carrying the load in rebounding, particularly off the offensive glass, with the team being the best in the country at offensive rebound percentage.

FRASER VALLEY CASCADES
5-3, 2nd West Division, Ranked #9 Nationwide
RPI: #4 (CW) #7 (Nationwide)
+10.1 Point Differential, 5th Pythagorean

This is a team dominated by its big men. Jasper Moedt and Michael James have been dominating off the glass this season, and, partnered with Kyle Grewal and Joel Friesen on defense, this is not a team that gives up a lot of second chances. They lead the league in defensive rebounding (both raw number and percentages), holding their opponents to 75.4 points per game, fourth in the conference.

They're an aggressive team that like to put the ball in the hands of high-volume shooters Friesen and Sam Freeman. With such strong threats inside, it creates a lot of space for those two to rack up a good number of points. When they're moving it inside, they're a pretty tough team to beat, and it's something I'd like to see them do a little more in the second half. Their record is marred by an OT loss on the road to Saskatchewan, and a grueling trip to Alberta the next day, which is a trip apparently a lot West teams are making this season.

TRU WOLFPACK
4-4, 4th West Division
RPI: #5 (CW) #10 (Nationwide)
+1.4 Point Differential, 7th Pythagorean

After losing big man and inside threat Greg Stewart, one of the top players in the country at his position, 2nd year head coach Scott Clark was left with a roster with not a lot of bright spots. He recruited Las Vegas-born Justin King out of the NWAAC who has become a high-volume shooter, the first mid-range shooting threat in the team's history, and one of the country's best players since arriving.

TRU have played a pretty tough schedule so far, seeing UFV twice, Victoria, and having travelled to Calgary and Lethbridge. That said, they've held a .500 record, which is very suspicious knowing the WolfPack's history. Their outside guys, Kevin Pribilsky and Chas Kok, have swayed between hot and cold this season, and if either of them catch fire in a game against one of the top teams in the second half, there's a chance that the 'Pack could surprise. Certainly those two enjoy the extra space afforded by defenses focusing on the highest-scorer in the country.

They play UBC two weeks into the second half, which should be a battle between the league's two top offenses.

Also...

TRINITY WESTERN SPARTANS
2-6, 5th West Division
RPI #6 (CW) #11 (Nationwide)
-11.8 Point Differential, 12th Pythagorean

An absolutely brutal schedule has kept last season's CIS runners-up out of the rankings since the end of November, coupled with the loss of Jacob Doreksen to graduation. However the Spartans didn't really keep games against top teams close, an unfortunate reality of the season, and it will be real interesting to see if Kyle Coston and Tristan Smith, the team's two best players, can really begin to grab a hold on games.

It starts at home against Lethbridge and Calgary.

LETHBRIDGE PRONGHORNS
4-4, T-3rd East Division
RPI #7 (CW) #12 (Nationwide)
-1.0 Point Differential, 8th Pythagorean

This is a team mostly made up of college recruits, led by Dominyc Coward and Daryl Cooper, really improving the team and keeping them in contention. They're quite a veteran team that's 6th defensively in the league, but their offense is the key. They don't win a lot of low-scoring basketball games, but take a lot of shots, spread the ball around and create turnovers. I'm quite excited to see what they can do in the second half.

MANITOBA BISONS
4-4, T-3rd East Division
RPI #9 (CW) #20 (Nationwide)
-1.4 Point Differential, 9th Pythagorean

A strong start to the season, but the Bisons faltered in the second half last season after a 7-3 start, plummeting to lose 12 of their last 14 games and getting swept out of the playoffs by UBC, so perhaps it's good that they didn't start with just too good of a record this time around. They earned a split in the early going against Alberta and have survived Fraser Valley, so there's one quality win at least going ahead, on the back of Jonar Huertas who has come from being a bench option to a key player for the Bisons.

CALGARY DINOS
3-5, T-5th East Division
RPI #13 (CW) #37 (Nationwide)
+2.0 Point Differential, 6th Pythagorean

Another team that Pythagoras likes but RPI doesn't, Calgary is coming off a good win at home to UBC and is in theoretical playoff contention. Tyler Fidler is having a strong season with 16.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as the Dinos' go-to player. Their opening road trip down to the Coast pits them against Trinity and Fraser Valley, and splitting that series puts the Dinos in excellent contention. They'll need a very hot start.

BRANDON BOBCATS
3-5, T-5th East Division
RPI #12 (CW) #26 (Nationwide)
-9.4 Point Differential, 10th Pythagorean

I like Brandon, boasting two of the conference's best rookies in Ali Mounir and Ilarion Bonhomme. Not many Canada West teams go East to find players, but the two are 2 and 3 on the team in scoring and Bonhomme is tied with Nathan Yu of UBC for assists. They're finding their game, having won two of three, and begin with a home-and-home against Regina.

WINNIPEG WESMEN
2-6, 8th East Division
RPI #10 (CW) #21 (Nationwide)
-10.3 Point Differential, 11th Pythagorean

They're 8th in team defense, which I guess is alright, but despite wins over Alberta and Lethbridge, the team has been left wanting, mostly due to their inability to shoot. Leading scorer Dominique Brown is shooting just 33% on the season.

REGINA COUGARS
2-5, 7th East Division
RPI #11 (CW) #23 (Nationwide)
-12.3 Point Differential, 13th Pythagorean

Other than the play of Paul Gareau (18.3 points, 7.7 rebounds) and a pair of wins over Calgary including an overtime game, not a lot to cheer about in Regina, who are clearly the weakest non-"expansion" team in the conference.

UBC-OKANAGAN HEAT
1-5, 6th West Division
RPI #14 (CW) #38 (Nationwide)
-22.2 Point Differential, 14th Pythagorean

A win against Regina salvaged the first half, but the team has had a lot of trouble scoring points. That said, former Kitsilano Blue Demon Yassine Ghomari has been pretty good averaging 19.2 points and the team has seen some good performances from 6'8" rookie big-man Julien Asselstine.

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