Dalhousie University will host the U Sports men’s basketball national championships for the second time in three years this March.
They won a bronze medal as the host two years ago. They want to do better this time.
“We’re not playing for second, that’s for sure,” says Head Coach Rick Plato.
In 2016-17, Dal won the AUS championships for the third year in a row, and then nearly made it to the gold medal game at nationals, losing to Ryerson University in the semifinals by one point. Playing McGill University for bronze, Dal won the first national medal for men’s basketball in the school’s history.
As the host team this year, Dal is guaranteed a spot in the tournament, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be complacent. They want to earn their place. They want to go into the tournament as AUS champions.
“We can’t just settle for getting into the national tournament,” says fourth-year forward and co-captain Sascha Kappos. “Our goal has always been to try and win.”
Their performance during the regular season and AUS playoffs will determine Dal’s position in the tournament, which is important to avoid playing a top team at the start like Carleton University. They have won 13 national championships in the past 16 years.
“There are no weak teams there,” says Plato, “but if we’re going to have to play Carleton, I’d like it to be in the final.”
The Tigers have a lot of work to do to make it to that point. Last season, they didn’t qualify for nationals because they lost to St. Francis Xavier University in the semifinals of the AUS playoffs. Dal stayed even with the X-Men in the first quarter and outscored them in the second and fourth quarters, but was beat 32-15 in the third, which would decide the game.
That loss should motivate the team for this year.
“Before you can win, you’ve gotta learn how to lose and taste what it feels like,” Plato says. “A lot of the guys felt it last year and I don’t think any of them really liked it.”
This year’s team lost seven players from last year, but has “a good core,” says Plato, and is “much more athletic.”
That includes four players from the team two years ago: Sascha Kappos, Kevin Duong, Cedric Sanogo and Alex Carson.
In 2017, both Sanogo and Carson missed nationals because of injuries, so playing in the tournament will be a new experience for almost everybody on the current team.
The tournament is held at the Scotiabank Centre and brings a different environment than regular season games. The stadium and crowd are larger, the music is louder and there is a lot more energy in the crowd. Two years ago, Saint Mary’s lead the league with 1,228 fans per game. In Dal’s first game at nationals there were 5,210 fans. Dal will have a regular season game against Saint Mary’s and AUS playoff games at the Scotiabank Centre to try to be familiar with the setting.
“You don’t realize until you first start playing in the game,” says Kappos. “Taking a second and looking around and just seeing all the eyes are on you – it’s an incredible feeling.”
But that’s nearly five months away. Right now, the Tigers are finishing their preseason, where they’ve gone 8-1 in games against teams in Ontario and Nova Scotia at the time of writing.
“If the preseason’s any indication, this team’s very hard working [and has] tremendous grit,” Plato says.
There’s lots of potential in the team, more than half of which is made up of first and second years. Right now, they lack some of the experience and leadership of the bronze-medal-winning team two years ago.
Plato is optimistic that by the time for nationals, the team will be in a good position to succeed.
“We’ve got the ingredients – it’s like baking a cake or making fine wine,” he says. “It looks pretty messy early on but … over the course of six months we’ve got some time to put it together and the finished product come March is going to look pretty good.”