As far as basketball is concerned, the old, lovable, quirky Great Plains Athletic Conference ceased to be in 1999 when the Canada West conference absorbed the four teams of the GPAC into its membership.
The home may have been different for Brandon, Manitoba, Regina and Winnipeg, but the sibling rivalries built over decades remained as the four teams were kept together in the Great Plains Division. So while the GPAC Four were exposed to more competition in their transfer to the Canada West, the competitive animosity was allowed to remain.
In the past when three (and sometimes four) teams in the GPAC would make the playoffs, the scratch-and-claw nature of the conference, combined with having to play each other roughly 128 times a season, meant the meetings were often epic. At that time, we could agree on a few things: Brandon hated Regina; Manitoba hated Winnipeg; Winnipeg hated Manitoba.
And everyone hated Brandon.
But those rivalries were intensified because, y’know what, those teams were all pretty good.
This history lesson is brought to you by the resurrection of the Manitoba Bisons and Winnipeg Wesmen — reminding you that, yes, there used to be a rivalry between the city’s two men’s basketball teams and it used to count for something, too.
And so there could be few better times for the two to renew that rivalry than on this particular Wednesday night — with both teams among the best in Canada West with identical 7-3 records and for the first time in a number of years directly in each others path for possible playoff spots in the
seven- eight-team Prairie Division.
So let’s break down Wednesday’s semester-ending showdown at the Duckworth (8 p.m.).
IT GETS TOUGHER FROM HERE
To be clear — and just to get this out of the way — both teams haven’t seen the most grueling portions of their schedules yet. The Bisons have UBC (8-2), Victoria (7-3), Alberta (9-1), and Saskatchewan (6-4) waiting in the second semester, not to mention far-from-gimmies in UNBC (on the road) and Lethbridge, both of which are 5-5. The Wesmen, meanwhile, also have those same opponents, plus a doubleheader with 4-6 Calgary, which has handed Alberta its only loss of the season.
So, yeah, they can only play who’s put on their schedule and both teams deserve a hat tip for getting through this part of their schedule so well. Just know, the wheat and the chaffe, so to speak will be separated in January and February, and we’ll see who’s of playoff calibre then.
BREAKING DOWN: BISONS
In his fourth season at the helm, Kirby Schepp has his team in a similar position to last season, when the Herd started the season 8-4, before losing their final eight. As gutting as that slide last season had to be for the Bisons, perhaps it serves them well this time around with the experience in their back pocket as they navigate the terrain with post-season play in their sight.
The Bisons play at a high pace and will want to put the transition defence of the Wesmen to the test. Even after makes, Manitoba will look to push the tempo. It’s one of the reasons the Bisons are among the highest scoring teams in the country (81.2 ppg; 5th Canada West; 12th CIS) — they create a high volume of possessions and they’re back in your halfcourt before you know it.
I’ll put Manitoba’s starting five (and Winnipeg’s for that matter) against any in the conference, but basketball isn’t played like video games so you have to play more than five guys. So I wonder about the Bisons depth. To be fair, they’re deeper in some places than they were a season ago and having Jonar Huertas come off the bench, as he has the past three games, gives them a legit scorer to turn to in relief. Their interior depth has been marginally upgraded — they have more bodies to insert, but they’re short on game-changers in that department. For some athleticism, the Bisons can turn to 6-foot-3 swingman Davidson Joseph, a player who garnered a lot of buzz after having a quality run at Quebec CEGEP Ahuntsic. Davidson, in his first season at Manitoba, is averaging 7.9 points per game off the bench.
But, make no mistake, the Bisons can play serious small-ball. Leading scorer Stephan Walton leads four players who average double figures, and that includes their big import Yigit Ozsayiner, the 6-foot-6 sophomore from Turkey who can step away from the key but also leads the team in rebounding at 8.9 per. If fifth-year senior captain Kevin Oliver can relocate the consistency he showed last season (12.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg, .348 3FG), the Bisons are that much better.
Where the Bisons will have to prove themselves is on the defensive end, an area of concern last season (when they gave up nearly 90 points a game) that they’ve improved upon so far in 2012 to the tune of a 14-point improvement in scoring D.
BREAKING DOWN: WESMEN
Not to beat the depth topic into the ground, but it’s no coincidence that Winnipeg’s improved record also comes in a season when it has more weapons than it has ever had during the two-plus-years tenure of Mike Raimbault.
One luxury the Wesmen have this season they didn’t have at this time in 2011, is a healthy Andrew Cunningham, the diminutive point guard from Toronto who is absolutely crucial to what Winnipeg does. Last year at this time, Cunningham was hurt, now he’s leading the country (by far) with 7.9 assists per game. He is a pass-first point who loves to get the paint and spread the ball around for Winnipeg’s shooters, who are knocking down threes at a .377 clip, second in the conference. Cunningham isn’t infallible of course. Teams can scheme to deny him dribble penetration, or simply dare him to shoot it — something he’s not immediately inclined to do.
Where Winnipeg provides match-up difficulties for opposing teams is with their two starting bigs: imports Steven Wesley and Benny Iko. Iko, the Laurel, Md., product who came to Winnipeg when Raimbault did to start the 2010 season, is having by far his best season at U of W, and Wesley has positioned himself to be in the conference all-star discussion. At 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, Wesley and Iko can score around the rim but also step out and score in face-up or pick-and-roll situations (Wesley) or shoot the three off penetrate-and-pitch opportunities (Iko). Wesley leads the team in scoring at 16.6 points per game, Iko is second at 13.7. They both average a team-high 8.0 rebounds per and Iko leads the team shooting a tremendous .426 clip from three. Both of them have to be accounted for when you’re drawing up your defensive plan.
Yet away from those two, the Wesmen don’t rebound the ball particularly well and indeed they’re in the bottom of the conference in that category.
3 KEYS THAT SWING THE GAME
• Who wins inside? Manitoba’s bigs don’t have to come in and put up double-doubles, they just have to find a way to corral Wesley on the glass, which generally means matching his energy and action. Wesley is athletic and wins a lot of 50-50 balls from being active, and if the Bisons can’t find a way to curtail that, they’ll have trouble keeping the Wesmen from second-chance opportunities. The Bisons may not have the best rebounders on the court, but they are a better rebounding team and that will be a key stat to look at when it’s over.
• Can the Wesmen deny dribble penetration? The Bisons have a glut of guards and perimeter players who want to beat you off the dribble and break down a defence. Walton is outstanding at it, so is Huertas and even fifth-year senior Xavier Smith has been contributing significantly offensively. If the Bisons are opening the game up and getting by on the bounce, it puts the Wesmen in a tough spot.
• Who shoots it best? There’s no shortage of guys who want to shoot the ball, although the Wesmen rely on the three a lot more than Manitoba does. Iko, off-guard Travis Krahn, Nolan Gooding and reserve Sam Hattin all can stroke it and you have to like their chances of knocking their looks down in their own gym, where the Wesmen are 5-0 this season. Clamping down Cunningham would be a good start for Manitoba. Gooding is still (understandably) looking a step slow since coming back from two knee injuries. Bottling those two will go a long way for U of M.
If they play 10 times, I could easily see it going 5-5. There really truly isn’t a lot that separates the two. If it’s a game in the high 80s or 90s, I think that goes against the Wesmen, who’d much rather keep teams in the 70s and win a game with defensive intensity and creating turnovers. The Bisons have to be smart with the basketball in their hands, because Winnipeg has taken a page out of the old Brandon Bobcats books by really making teams pay for their turnovers. They ramp it up on the defensive end, force you into bad plays and turn that into points at a very efficient rate.
In a game where the away team merely has to travel 15 minutes down the street, you wouldn’t likely put a lot of weight on home-court advantage, but there’s something to be said for a comfort zone and the intangible of wanting to defend your house. Bear in mind: Winnipeg shoots the three at .317 on the road, but is .447 from deep at home and twice in five games at Duckworth the Wesmen have shot 50% or better while hoisting more than 30 threes. Those are significant numbers. And, oh yeah, they’re 5-0 there, too.
I think the Wesmen get this one, 78-74.
But keep in mind, this isn’t the last time they see each other this season — Feb. 13. To close out the conference season. A game that could let us declare this rivalry officially resuscitated.
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