The U SPORTS Men’s Basketball Final 8 Championship kicks off Thursday, March 9, but Wednesday saw players and teams arriving, getting ready for the year-end tournament.
The event has been hosted in Nova Scotia an incredible 35 times since the inaugural tournament in 1963, with 26 of those years being held in the same building – the Scotiabank Centre. Next year, the Final 8 will be hosted by Acadia University, furthering the Nova Scotian ties to the event and ensuring the representation of at least two Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference teams.
On Wednesday, coaches from the eight teams gathered on the concourse of the Scotiabank Centre to share their thoughts on the upcoming weekend’s games, with plenty reminiscing about playing or coaching in the same location in years prior. Mayor Mike Savage and Premier Stephen McNeil also introduced Halifax to the folks from out of town, pointing to its strong history of university basketball and varsity sports in general, as the past two years have seen the national university hockey championships hosted in Nova Scotia as well.
Playing at the tournament – in order of seeding – are Ryerson University, Carleton University, McGill University, University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, University of Manitoba, University of Calgary, and Saint Mary’s University. Dalhousie’s first game is Thursday evening at 8 p.m. at the Scotiabank Centre, when they will take on fourth-ranked University of Alberta.
The Tigers are coming in as AUS Champions following a victory over the Saint Mary’s Huskies last weekend, and had a 16-4 regular season record in the conference. Tigers head coach, Rick Plato, spoke fondly about his days as a player back in the 1970s, saying that even then, the support from Haligonians was unparalleled.
“The very first year the national tournament was in this building – there probably aren’t too many people that old who remember – but it was 11 000, 12 000 people. This place was jam-packed,” said the Dalhousie coach and former Saint Mary’s athlete.
Head coach of the Carleton Ravens, Dave Smart, was also quick to praise the talent and depth of U SPORTS basketball teams, especially in comparison with their counterparts in the south.
“The level of play here is also much better than people think. We’ve played 11 NCAA Division 1 teams, one of which is ranked I think 18th or 17th in the NCAA right now,” Smart said. “For us, by far the three best teams we’ve played this year were Ryerson, Ottawa U, and Brock. Two of those three teams aren’t here, and there’s six other teams who are better than those teams or as good as those teams.”
After the press conference, All-Canadian Awards Gala on Wednesday evening saw some of the country’s best players receive recognitions for their success on and off the court.
Dalhousie’s Kashrell Lawrence took home the Ken Shields Award for Student-Athlete Community Service. Lawrence has been captain of the team for the past three years, and is highly involved in campus life when he’s not on the court or in the classroom. He is vice president of the Tigers Varsity Council, and has taken on leading roles with the Dalhousie chapter of the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) and Bell Let’s Talk Day.
In his speech, he thanked his teammates, his coaches and his mother – particularly fitting given the event fell on International Women’s Day. As the humble fifth year from Brampton, Ontario heads into his final national tournament, he made it clear that although his university career will be over in four days, those four days may well be the most important of them all.