By: Monty Mosher
This was a season of transition for the Dalhousie Tigers men's basketball team. There was no alternative.
Many of the key pieces of three consecutive AUS titles – Kashrell Lawrence, Ritchie Kanza Mata and Jarred Reid – ended their varsity careers with a U Sports bronze medal at last year's Final 8 tournament at Scotiabank Centre.
Rick Plato's team, which also lost fifth-year senior Ryall Stroud, had to come back to the pack in 2017-18. There were too many players in too many new roles for it to be otherwise.
But it didn't work out that way.
With fifth-year senior forward Sven Stammberger averaging 18.4 points per game, and sophomore three-ball gunner Alex Carson averaging 17 more, the Tigers went 16-4 to capture first place and an opening-round bye for the AUS tournament starting Friday at Scotiabank Centre.
The Tigers are in the running for the first stretch of four straight league banners since the Acadia Axemen from 1961-65.
With Carson out for most of last year with a groin injury, Stammberger and guard Jordan Aquino-Serjue were the only experienced veterans remaining from last year's championship team.
The Tigers and the second-place UNB Varsity Reds, also 16-4, set out in the semifinals on Saturday night with Dalhousie in the opener at 6:30 p.m.
This will be the final title chase for UNB guard Javon Masters, who ended his five-year career with a national record 2,407 regular-season points. He led the conference with 24.5 points per game.
In Friday's quarter-finals, fifth-seeded St. Francis Xavier (9-11) meets fourth-seeded Acadia (15-5) at 6:30 p.m. No. 3 Saint Mary's (14-6) faces No. 6 Memorial (5-15) in the second game.
Sunday's championship final is at 4:30 p.m.
The nationals are back in Halifax starting March 8 with the Axemen guaranteed a berth as host. Should Acadia advance to the final, the other finalist also goes to the Final 8.
Plato believes the Tigers will need to rebound in order to make it four straight titles. In their losses, three to the Axemen and one to the X-Men, they got hammered down low.
The Tigers also like to control the tempo, a critical part of their title run.
"That will depend on our discipline to get back quickly on defence and stop the ball in transition. Every one of the teams in the playoffs are adept at pushing the ball," said Plato.
None of it will be easy in a season where four or five teams could easily walk away with the banner.
"But I believe in this team and I have faith in our veterans to provide the leadership," said Plato. "It begins and ends on the defensive end, and on the glass. We will need to be solid in both of those areas."
The Tigers won last year knowing they had the free pass to nationals. Now it is Acadia's turn.
The Axemen won six in a row in January, but were 3-3 in February with a loss to Dalhousie and two to surging Saint Mary's.
Six-foot-10 forward Erik Nissen has been the star, leading the AUS in rebounding and blocked shots and scoring a team-high 18.3 points per game.
Axemen coach Kevin Duffie said his team is playing well heading into the weekend and, like everybody else, the focus will be taking care of the ball and rebounding.
As for facing the X-Men: "It seems like Acadia and X is a tale as old as time. We had many close battles this year and I expect another great game."
"I would say that the parity in the league is as even as it's ever been, evidenced by the fact that the first four spots were not determine until the last day of the season," he said.
"We have to be disappointed with our 9-11 record with a veteran team, although we did lose five games by a total of 12 points, which definitely affected our final position. We have beaten everyone in the tournament with the exception of UNB. Acadia will be a tough opponent for sure, the key being able to rebound with their big front line."
The Axemen and X-Men met five times this year with Acadia winning three, including one in November at Scotiabank Centre. Two games in the rivalry went to overtime and all but one was decided by three points or fewer.
The Huskies came in on a seven-game winning streak, signaling a legitimate championship push. They have three of the league's top 11 scorers in Kemar Alleyne (19.4), Nikita Kasongo (18.9) and Osman Barrie (16.5).
"We are playing pretty well the last few weeks and hopefully we carry that into this weekend," said coach Jonah Taussig.
"It's always tough to beat a team three times in a row, so we know we'll have our hands full with Memorial. I'm anticipating a weekend with a lot of close games as there's not much difference in talent between all six teams."
The same can't be said for the Sea-Hawks, who lost four in a row to finish including a pair on home court against Saint Mary's.
"We haven't been playing that well our last few games, but we're hoping we can turn it on at the right time," Memorial coach Peter Benoite.
"We've shown we can compete with anyone in the league, but we will have to play very well to upend Saint Mary's, who are playing extremely well of late. They are very talented, and are a threat from every position."
For tickets to the 2018 Subway AUS Basketball Championships, please visit www.AUSHoops.ca.