Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – The Alberta Golden Bears started strong in their bid to become the first team in a decade to win consecutive Canada West men's basketball titles, but the first half of the 2017-18 season has shown several teams pose a serious threat to derail the defending champs' plans.
At the holiday break, three Canada West teams hold spots inside the top five of the U SPORTS rankings, including Calgary (No. 2), UBC (No. 4) and the Bears (No. 5). Meanwhile, Lethbridge, Manitoba and Regina have all won at least two-thirds of their game, making for a crowded scene at the top of the conference standings, and leaving much to be sorted out when the teams hit the hardwood for the second half come January.
From the top to the bottom, here's a team-by-team look at the first half of action in Canada West men's hoops.
1. Lethbridge Pronghorns (10-2) – Take an 0-2 weekend in Regina at the end of November out of the equation, and it was a perfect first half for the upstart Pronghorns, who are one of two Canada West teams scoring more than 90 points per game. Senior guard DeJon Burdeaux leads the way for the U of L with an average of 21.9 points and his 42 steals rank first in the conference.
2. UBC Thunderbirds (10-2) – The T-Birds are the hottest team in Canada West, hitting the break on an eight-game win streak while no other squad has currently won more than three straight. Not only does UBC top the conference in scoring (95.7 points per game) and rebounding (45.7 RPG), T-Birds' senior Connor Morgan is Canada West's top scorer (25.0 PPG) and rebounder (10.3 RPG).
3. Alberta Golden Bears (9-1) – Alberta won its first nine games and spent much of the first half as Canada West's highest-ranked team, at No. 3, in U SPORTS Top 10. The Bears allow just 66 points per game – more than half a dozen less than the next closest team. Forward Mamadou Gueye scores a team-best 16.2 PPG for a deep Bears lineup that features 10 players logging at least 10 minutes per game.
4. Calgary Dinos (9-1) – Calgary's terrific first half included a pair of victories over UBC, giving the Dinos the most wins against nationally ranked teams in Canada West. Powered by fourth-year guard Mambi Diawari, who is tied for the conference lead with 25.0 PPG, the Dinos outscore their opponents by an average of more than a dozen points, and are allowing 72.5 PPG – second best in Canada West.
5. Manitoba Bisons (8-4) – With a bit more luck, the Bisons could actually be unbeaten; all four of their defeats have been by three points or less, while their victories – coming by a combined 106 points – have been far more decisive. U of M point guard Rashawn Browne averages a conference-leading 7.2 assists, and his teammate Justus Alleyn ranks in third in scoring at 22.8 PPG.
6. Regina Cougars (7-3) – Regina went four weeks without losing, reeling off seven straight wins, before dropping a pair of road games against a very tough UBC squad on the final weekend of the first half. In addition to their victories over the U of L, the Cougars' highlights include a thrilling 89-97 win at Manitoba. Senior Brian Ofori (15.0 ppg) leads five Cougars in double-figure scoring.
7. Victoria Vikes (6-4) – The sharp-shooting Vikes, who rank second in Canada West with a 35.9 three-point percentage, hit 18-of-31 from beyond the arc in a 92-83 upset win at Alberta on Dec. 2, giving UVic its fifth win in six games to close the first half while handing the Bears their only defeat. Senior guard Mason Loewen leads Victoria in scoring (14.4 PPG), passing (4.2 APG) and crashing the boards (7.2 RPG),
8. Brandon Bobcats (6-4) – Brandon is the only team to beat Calgary in Canada West play, 69-64 at home on Nov. 18, in what was the lowest scoring game of the first half for the Bobcats, who have the conference's fourth highest averages for both points for (85.4) and against (85.1). Tyvon Cooper, a guard from New York, is BU's leading point producer and No. 4 in Canada West with an average of 22.4.
9. Mount Royal Cougars (5-5) – The Cougars played the most home games of Canada West team in the first half, suiting up seven times at Kenyon Court, where they won four times, including a pair of dramatic one-possession wins over Manitoba in mid-November. MRU top scorer and Canada West's No. 2 rebounder Josh Ross is hovering in rarified 20-10 territory with 19.0 PPG and 9.9 RPG.
10. Thompson Rivers WolfPack (5-7) – The 'Pack closed out their pre-break schedule with three straight wins to turn around a season that teetered on the brink after TRU dropped six in a row by a margin of over 12 points per outing. TRU forward Luke Morris has grabbed the most rebounds in Canada West, and leads his team with averages of 14.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks.
11. UNBC Timberwolves (4-8) – The Timberwolves, who faced a challenging early schedule with four of their first six against Calgary and UBC, are 4-0 against teams lower in the standings and 0-8 against those they trail, though they're winless at home while going 4-2 outside of Prince George. Marcus Mackay, who has recorded the most points on UNBC, has reached double-figures scoring in all 12 games.
12. UFV Cascades (4-8) – With 118 treys to their credit, UFV is the most prolific outside shooting team in Canada West. The Cascades also rank first with 62 rejections, thanks largely to the conference's top shot blocker, Sukhman Sandhu, who averages 2.2 per game. All four of UFV's wins have come in the friendly confines of the Envision Athletic Centre, including three straight at the end of November.
13. Winnipeg Wesmen (3-9) – The Wesmen have already endured the gauntlet of weekend series against all three of the conference's nationally ranked teams, with their strongest showing a narrow 80-74 loss at then-undefeated Calgary on Nov 11. Homegrown post Billy Yaworsky has 16 blocks to sit third in the conference, and swatted four shots on Oct. 28 in a 90-78 road victory over MRU.
14. UBC Okanagan Heat (2-8) – UBCO slumped into the break, losing six in a row while scoring 67 or less in the their last five, leaving the Heat with a 62.0 scoring average – lowest among Canada West teams this season. The Heat are one of the conference's better rebounding squads, ranking second in offensive boards (13.4 per game) and fifth with a +1.4 margin on the glass.
15. Saskatchewan Huskies (2-8) – Though wins have been hard to come by this season for Saskatchewan, a couple of Huskies are having standout campaigns: forward Jordan Barker leads Canada West with 38 offensive boards and ranks third with 9.6 rebounds per game, while guard Lawrence Moore is averaging a team-high 20.7 points and is tied for first in the conference with 3.5 steals per game.
16. MacEwan Griffins (2-8) – The Griffins picked up a win on both the opening and final weekends of the first half, but went 0-6 in November, though three of those losses came by only a combined 10 points. The Griffins average the most shot attempts in Canada West from beyond the arc, and rank fourth in three-point makes (96) with five players having hit at least 10 threes in 10 games.
17. Trinity Western Spartans (0-10) – After their first seven losses all were by double-digits, including margins of 41 and 52, the winless Spartans showed progress at the end of the first half, keeping it to single digits in three losses against tough opponents in UBC and Brandon. Senior guard Pogos Trunyan is TWU's top scorer (14.9 PPG), leading Canada West with 3.3 three-pointers made per game.