The AUS Men’s Basketball Championship will be played under the bright lights of Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre, as the Dalhouise Tigers look to win their fourth-straight conference title. With Acadia hosting the U SPORTS Men’s Basketball Final 8, this weekend will decide the other team that will represent the AUS at Nationals. There has been a lot of parity in AUS men’s basketball over the past few seasons, and this year is no exception. While Dalhousie and the UNB Varsity Reds have both punched their ticket to Saturday night’s semifinals, the Friday night games between Acadia/StFX and SMU/Memorial are competitive matchups with loads of star power. Can the Tigers make it four in a row? Or will someone else join the Axemen at the Final 8, fresh off of a big win at the Scotiabank Centre?
#4 Acadia Axemen (15-5) vs. #5 StFX X-Men (9-11)
This matchup will be billed as a clash of two of the most skilled big men in the country, between X’s 6’7 Kevin Bercy and Acadia’s 6’10 Erik Nissen. The X-Men and Axemen met five times this season, with Acadia winning three of those games, beating the X-Men by an average score of 81.4-76.2 over the series. The most interesting matchup for preview purposes was the November 24 meeting held at the Scotiabank Centre, as part of a doubleheader with the Canadian senior national team hosting The Bahamas in FIBA Qualifying. The X-Men led that game by as much as 17, and were able to hold off a late Axemen run to win 80-78 in front of 2000+ excited fans.
For the second-straight year the X-Men qualify for the tournament as the #6 seed, but should not be taken lightly. Kevin Bercy’s numbers were down from last year’s MVP campaign, due in part to nagging ankle injuries, but in five games against the Axemen, he averaged 17.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. StFX has four fifth-year seniors in their starting lineup — Bercy, Julius Antoine, Davonte Provo, and Cameron Walker — and has the presence of Canadian coaching legend Steve Konchalski on the sideline, who is making his 40th appearance at the AUS Championships! The X-Men are experienced and hungry to avoid a repeat of last year’s tournament, when they were unable to hold on to a late lead and suffered a 80-79 loss at the hands of eventual finalist Saint Mary’s.
The Axemen know they’ll be playing again next weekend, as they automatically qualify for the Final 8 as hosts, but their goal all season has been to win the AUS Championship and head into Nationals with confidence. Nissen was just named the AUS Defensive Player of the Year and teams up with Second Team All-Star Ben Miller to form a nearly unstoppable pick-and-roll combination. Acadia’s late season addition of CBU-transfer Junior Moaku-Matia throws a wrinkle in this matchup, as his athleticism and size will help Nissen and the Axemen deal with the X-Men’s frontcourt depth.
The Acadia Axemen are my pick to advance to meet the Dal Tigers in the semis.
#3 SMU Huskies (14-6) vs. #6 Memorial Sea-Hawks (5-15)
This quarter-final matchup sees two teams heading into the playoffs in complete opposite directions. Saint Mary’s enters the tournament on a seven-game winning streak, and are the victors of 10 of their last 12 regular season games, including a season-ending sweep of Memorial, defeating the Sea-Hawks by 15 and 16 points last weekend without the services of fifth-year, 6’9 centre Osman Barrie. AUS Rookie of the Year Nikita Kasongo contributed 21.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per game in the sweep of Memorial.
The Sea-Hawks on the other hand have dropped four in a row and nine of their final ten regular season games. Offence has been a major issue for the Sea-Hawks of late, averaging just 68 points per game on 39% from the field over six February contests. Those numbers are contrasted to an average of 79 points over the previous 14 regular season games. All-Star snub Daniel Gordon was the bright spot in the Sea-Hawks losses to SMU, as he averaged 26.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per game last weekend, and is a threat to go for 30+ any given night. The Sea-Hawks will also need big contributions from guard Davion Parnsalu and forward Nathan Barker. However, the team’s lack of rim protection could be a major issue against an athletic Huskies squad.
As the season has progressed, Saint Mary’s perimeter trio of Kasongo, Nico Brauner, and First Team All-Star Kemar Alleyne have continued to develop chemistry and show that while opposing defences may be able to contain one of them, the other two will be there to pick up the slack. If Barrie is able to avoid injuries and foul trouble, the Huskies will be very difficult to stop. And of course, Huskies nation always does a great job of packing the Scotiabank Centre come tournament time, and Saint Mary’s won’t want to let the crowd down.
The SMU Huskies are my pick to advance to meet the UNB Varsity Reds in the semis.
#1 Dalhousie Tigers (16-4) vs. #4 Acadia Axemen (15-5)
Whether Acadia or StFX wins their quarter-final matchup, they are in tough against the three-time defending champion Dalhousie Tigers. For the Axemen, this game would have special significance, as they are still attempting to get over the heartbreak of last year’s semifinal loss to the Tigers; a game that Acadia led by six with 39 seconds remaining before Dal went on a shocking 9-0 run, punctuated by a Sven Stammberger steal and slam, to take a 78-75 victory.
Entering the tournament, Dalhousie has won 14 of their last 16 games against U SPORTS competition. But Acadia has been the Tigers’ Achilles heel all year, handing Dal three of their four regular season losses, most recently a 75-63 beatdown on the Tigers home floor just two weeks ago.
This matchup would feature the top two defences in the AUS, with Dalhousie allowing just 71.9 points per game, and the Axemen only trailing slightly behind allowing 73.8. The four regular season contests reflected the defensive intensity of these squads, as the Axemen outscored by the Tigers by a razor thin margin of 72.5-69.3. While both teams pride themselves on lock-down defence and depth, they also feature very different styles.
Acadia has the advantage inside, with Erik Nissen combining with Rhys Larry, Junior Moaku-Matia, and Jerome Mugambi to make up the largest frontcourt in the conference. Ben Miller is a veteran floor general and is surrounded with talented guards including the sharp-shooting Nick DePalma, speedy Mitchell Tempro, and the tough veteran Thomas Johnston. One player to watch this weekend will be 6’2 wing Trevon Grant who missed significant time this season with injury (including three of four matchups against the Tigers), but provides a scoring punch and defensive intensity when in the Axemen lineup.
The Tigers strength is their speed and shooting. Dalhousie features a pair of 6’5 First Team All-Stars in Sven Stammberger and Alex Carson, who combine to hit 4.7 three-pointers per game on 45% shooting from beyond the arc. It is no secret that head coach Rick Plato loves to wreak havoc on both ends of the court by deploying small lineups featuring an array of speedy guards including Jordan Aquino-Serjue, Cedric Sanogo, Ryan Harnett, and freshmen standouts Keevan Veinot and Xavier Ochu. It will be interesting to see if Coach Plato tries to use 6’10 centre Sascha Kappos to match up with Acadia’s height, or if he decides to play small-ball with hopes that the Axemen bigs won’t be able to catch up.
I’ve got the Dal Tigers advancing to their fourth-consecutive AUS Final. The silver-lining for Acadia fans is they will have another chance to make some noise at the Scotiabank Centre as they host the U SPORTS Final 8.
#2 UNB Varsity Reds (16-4) vs. #3 SMU Huskies (14-6)
Considering all that he has accomplished (U SPORTS All-Time Leading Scorer, three-time AUS MVP, four-time All-Canadian), it is hard to fathom that the UNB Varsity Reds are 0-4 at the AUS Championship in the “Javon Masters era”. The Huskies have played the spoiler for UNB in the last two tournaments, including last year’s semifinal, as the Huskies took down the Varsity Reds 81-68, thanks to a combined 47 points from the talented trio of Marquis Clayton, Brian Rouse, and Theon Reefer. Now, all three of those former Huskies are playing professionally in NBL Canada, but Saint Mary’s has reloaded with talent and looks to advance to their third AUS Championship Game appearance in the past four seasons.
The Varsity Reds beat the Huskies in each of their five meetings this season by an average score of 90.8-82.0. In five games versus the Huskies, Masters averaged 28.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists, and posted three games of 35+ points. He also forced Saint Mary’s to witness some history, as he broke the AUS scoring record against them in November and followed it up by breaking the U SPORTS scoring record in a January win over the Huskies.
This matchup should be a high-scoring affair. The Varsity Reds have surrounded Masters with shooters and play at the fastest pace in the conference, with their 89.9 points per game leading the conference. The Huskies aren’t far behind, third in the AUS with 84.7 points per game, as their three-headed monster of Alleyne, Kasongo, and Barrie are all averaging better than 16.5 points per game.
Again, expect the performance of Osman Barrie to be a major X factor in this game, as the Varsity Reds are at their best when playing a smaller lineup. However, they could be forced to play a traditional big-man like Ravaughan Gayle or Cooper Wilks to slow down Barrie. This game should have all the makings of another March classic, but the Varsity Reds seem to have figured out the blueprint on how to consistently beat the Huskies.
I’ve got Masters and the Varsity Reds finally breaking through, advancing to UNB’s first AUS Championship Game since 2004, with a chance to reach their first U SPORTS Final 8 since that same year.
AUS Championship Game Prediction
#1 Dalhousie Tigers (16-4) vs. #2 UNB Varsity Reds (16-4)
The Tigers easily handled the Varsity Reds in their two matchups this year, outscoring them by an average of 86.5-71.5. Javon Masters was held to 18 points per game in his two contests against the Tigers, a respectable average for most, but well below the 25.1 PPG that Masters has averaged over his AUS career. It was even worse for Varsity Reds who are not named Masters, as they combined to shoot just 38% (40/105) from the field in the two losses.
As mentioned in my semifinal prediction, the Tigers have often played small-ball this season and the Varsity Reds lack a go-to big to make them pay for playing without a true centre. Masters is at his best when the court is open, and the Varsity Reds will try to surround him with shooters like Chris Spurrell, Jesse Kendalland, and versatile All-Rookie forward Ibrahima Doumbouya, but the Varsity Reds will need more help from their supporting cast. There is no question they are talented but they lack big game experience.
Dalhousie on the other hand, may have lost four starters from last year’s U SPORTS bronze medal squad, but they still have loads of championship experience. Forwards Sven Stammberger, Sascha Kappos, Kevin Duong, and guards Jordan Aquino-Serjue, Cedric Sanogo, and Ryan Harnett all have multiple AUS Championships under their belts, and they know what it takes to win at the Scotiabank Centre. When you mix in the likes of Carson, Ochu, and Veinot, the Tigers are as deep as any of their recent championship squads and are primed to make another appearance at Nationals.
Call it a four-peat! I predict the Dalhousie Tigers will win their fourth-consecutive AUS Championship, becoming the first team to accomplish that feat in 52 years. The last? The Acadia Axemen from 1962-1966. If the Tigers can pull it off, they would head into the U SPORTS Final 8 as winners of 16 of their last 18 games.