Wishful Thinking Wednesday: OUA, RSEQ need basketball interlock to better grow the game

Hockey rivals should meet five times in a season, not basketball teams.

Only within the circular logic of university athletics does this make an iota of sense: when the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec men's semifinals take place  Friday, host McGill and Laval will be playing or the fifth time, and so too will the Concordia Stingers and the Université du Québec à Montréal Citadins. Meantime, none the three Montreal teams  that are within a 2-3½-hour drive of a handful of gyms across the provincial border have faced an Ontario University Athletics opponent since November. Ironically, the exception to the rule is the most geographically distant team. Laval defeated Ottawa on Dec. 28.

The point of mentioning this is that there is a definitely a gap in development in university basketball since OUA and RSEQ don't cross over for regular-season play. With each conference at an odd number with 17 and five teams, creating one-game slack weeks in every team's schedule, would that there was the desire and political will to resurrect it. It would mean, especially for the 10 men's and women's teams in Quebec, meeting, adapting and learning from so many more opponents.

Generally, the only time there are cross-overs or  Ontario/Quebec leagues is out of need, either to save money or due to a lack of sufficient teams to make a league. That applies in men's hockey with Trois-Rivières, which will likely win the Queen's Cup as Ontario champion this weekend, being in the league along with Concordia and McGill. Only three Quebec schools ice men's teams. It also goes the other way with Carleton and Ottawa having their women's hockey teams in what amounts to a Montreal-area RSEQ league.

The same notion applied in the 1990s when the OUA East had an interlock with Quebec, which had a couple national championships during the decade with TV's John Dore guiding Concordia to the 1990 national title and Eddie Pomykala taking Bishop's to the summit in '98. Before romanticizing that era, it's important to remember that interlock was a shotgun marriage.

The OUA East and West had some issues at the time. For a few seasons, the East played a 20-game schedule  — a home-and-home with the other six teams, and a home-and-home with the four-team Q. The OUA West had a 12-game January/February regular season, before everyone held their own playoffs to determine three qualifiers for the Final 8. Eventually, OUA West came around, probably not coincidentally after McMaster lost the '98 final to Bishop's.

The good unintended consequence helped Quebec. The interlock ended in 2001-02, since the two OUA divisions had resolved their differences, and certain schools in Southern Ontario could abide visiting Concordia or McGill but not so much going to rural Quebec (Bishop's) and very French Quebec (Laval).

The obvious flip rejoinder to that: is going to Laval that much more onerous than trekking to Thunder Bay to play Lakehead?

Since the interlock ended, the closest a Q men's team has come to the national title was Concordia reaching the final of the 2005 CIS Final 10, losing 68-48 to Carleton in Michael Smart's final game for the Ravens. The conference is a collective 0-10 in the quarter-final since then, and it's not necessarily all due to low seeding. Concordia was the No. 1 seed in '07 abd No. 3 seed in '12.

Granted, development is hard to quantify, but a development problem has already been identified. It is on CIS to see what can be done to foment change for the greater good.

It's important not to read a cause-and-effect here. But it's fair to surmise that having five teams whale on each other from November until early March foments intense competition at the RSEQ Final Four, but it's probably not helping Quebec's cause at the  men's Final 8. The Q teams can play, notwithstanding that decade-long absence from Semifinal Saturday. Bishop's extended Ottawa to overtime in the quarter-final last season. It would have been easier to see that coming if observers in Ontario had the Gaiters come this way some time after the calendar changed.

Perception is reality, and everyone would have a clearer picture about  (a) the Q being underrated and (b) what it takes to be a top team if there was that interlock.

Men's hockey is a perfect example of the benefit from having Quebec schools as associate members of OUA. Carleton, which hosts Guelph on Saturday in a play-in game for the CIS University Cup, has been able to get better from playing against McGill and Trois-Rivières, who have long set the bar for the division. It is hard to imagine that Carleton coach Marty Johnston hankers for the easier path to the University Cup his team would have in a weaker, Ontario-only league.

Having the interlock would serve the ideal for CIS of having national championships where anyone can truly win the day. That is always going to be daunting in a country which is geographically vast and historically disinterested in supporting its own university sport. (Why no, I'm not filling out a NCAA Tournament bracket and don't ask me to join your pool.)

Ultimately, as the power conference, OUA owes it to its neighbour to remember that they had that mutually beneficial partnership in the 1990s. It came together by accident, almost, but it was great and rates a chance to come back. Players and coaches would benefit.

Twenty-two is the most awkward even number of teams to schedule. It is not that hard, though, to imagine grafting Quebec on to a four-division OUA.


(Laurier and Lakehead are interchangeable. Lakehead in a five-team division is probably more cost-effective.)

In this bit of blue-sky thinking, one could draft a 20-game schedule where everyone has divisional home-and-homes and plays 10-12 other teams. If OUA uses a RPI where every game counts, an unbalanced schedule does not pose a problem for playoff seeding. Also, each OUA team is getting new opponents. A few teams would have two more opponents that visit every season, which helps with building familiarity and rivalries.

Adding Quebec to the schedule would help develop the rivalries among OUA schools? Yeah, that's right.

Those are just the potential ancillary benefits. The primary one is that the smallest conference in the country is more prepared for nationals, which can only help Canadian university basketball.

Come playoff time, Quebec could have its own championship while OUA could proceed apace with the Critelli Cup and Wilson Cup. What is one more grandfathered-in exception in CIS, any way?

Wishful thinking — I know.

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