SARNIA, Ontario — Winning a national championship is hard enough. Defending that title the next season tends to be a more difficult task.
For the first time in their history, the Calgary Dinos won the men’s basketball national championship in 2018. The Dinos secured the title with a 79-77 win over the Ryerson Rams in the title game. After their banner season, Calgary entered the 2018-19 season with a massive target on their backs as the defending champions.
On a nightly basis, they are going to get everyone’s best shot as every team wants to say they beat the defending national champions the next season.
While defending a title tends to be harder in a sense than actually winning the title, the Dinos haven’t missed a beat in the first half of the 2018-19 season. Calgary closed out the fall semester with a perfect record in Canada West play at 12-0. They are six points clear of second place, and while they have played three more games than the UBC Thunderbirds, the Dinos are clearly the team to beat once more this season in the conference.
Given their hot start to the year, there’s just one question surrounding Calgary heading into the second half of the season. Can anyone stop the Dinos in the Canada West Conference?
Calgary became the first team from the Canada West to win the national championship since the 2009-10 season (Saskatchewan Huskies). They will look to make it back-to-back titles this season. After ending the seven-year title run of the Carleton Ravens last season, the Dinos have benefited from a home-heavy schedule to start the season.
Eight of their first 12 games were played on their home floor, and they made the most of their opportunities. The second half of the year will prove to be a bit more difficult as five of their eight remaining contests will come on the road, leaving just three remaining home games for the Dinos before the post-season.
Veterans have been leading the way for their Dinos over their first 12 games of the season. Four seniors are within the top five scorers for Calgary this season, including some familiar names from last year’s national championship team.
Mambi Diawara hit a last-second jumper to knock off Ryerson in the title game, 79-77, and he’s doing what he can to help Calgary defend their crown in 2018-19. Diawara leads the team with an average of 20.2 points per game, while also averaging 7.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. The veteran guard has led the way, but not without some help from others along the way.
Junior forward Brett Layton has enjoyed a breakout season this year with the Dinos, leading the team in rebounds while ranking second on the team in scoring. Layton is averaging 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocked shots per contest. He is an impact player on both ends of the floor, and is a player who doesn’t get the spotlight that he deserves on the national level, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the top forwards in the conference.
It’s no secret that the Dinos have a target on their backs after last season. But, given their hot start to the season, there’s just one question heading into the second half of the year.
Can anyone stop Calgary in the Canada West Conference?
The Dinos have passed every test thrown at them to this point in their season, but they haven’t played every team in the conference. In fact, they won’y play every team during the regular season, which means they meet one of their top competitors in the post-season when it matters most.
That would be the UBC Thunderbirds.
Like the Dinos, the Thunderbirds are rolling into the break, having won eight straight games to close the fall semester after splitting their weekend series to open the season back at the end of October. At 9-1 overall, the Thunderbirds are in second place in the league, six points behind the Dinos with two games in-hand. It will be a busy second half for UBC, as they still have 10 games left on tap.
Leading the way for the Thunderbirds has been a pair of NCAA transfers who returned north of the border to finish their collegiate careers. Jadon Cohee transferred to the Thunderbirds from the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in the Big Sky Conference, while Manroop Clair came to UBC from the Seattle Redhawks. The pair have taken on a starring role in terms of offensive production while also providing veteran leadership to the younger players.
Clair leads the team in scoring with an average of 19.4 points to go along with 4.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Not far behind, Cohee is averaging 19.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per contest. The pair have added a strong offensive punch to the rotation for the Thunderbirds this season, and their presence has had a positive impact on the younger players.
Sophomores Mason Bourcier and Grant Shephard have taken big strides this season with UBC, and they currently rank third and fourth on the team in scoring behind Clair and Cohee. The future is bright with the Thunderbirds with Bourcier and Shephard in tow, among others, but the time may be now for the program with Clair and Cohee leading the way.
After the Thunderbirds, the next top challenger for the Dinos may be the Winnipeg Wesmen. The Wesmen closed the first half of the season with an 8-4 record to sit in a tie for third-place in the league. They went just 3-2 at home, but were 5-2 away from Winnipeg. Down the stretch, the Wesmen won four of their last five games to enter the holiday break with some momentum at their backs.
The Wesmen boast one of the more underrated players in the country, let alone the Canada West, in Narcisse Ambanza. Always a threat on both ends of the floor, Ambanza posted 19.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game this season to spark the attack for the Wesmen. When you add in the play of Sean Tarver (19.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), the Wesmen boast one of the top tandems in the Canada West Conference.
Winnipeg will look to continue their strong play into the New Year, and they will have the luxury of playing the majority of their games down the stretch on their home floor. Five of their remaining eight games will be at home, giving them a leg up on their competition the rest of the way.
While Winnipeg and UBC may be the top challengers to the Dinos heading into the second half of the year, there are some others that will have their say in how the title race plays out.
For starters, the Fraser Valley Cascades are one of the hottest teams in the conference at the break. They have won seven straight games to close out the first half of the season, and they will have two shots to knock off the Dinos in January before the post-season rolls around. Circle those games on your calendars.
Then, you have the Regina Cougars. Calgary and Regina kicked off the 2018-19 season with a weekend series, and while the Dinos picked up a pair of wins over the Cougars (91-68, 95-60), they haven’t let that slow them down. Since the two losses to open the year, Regina has won seven of eight games to enter the break with a 7-3 record. With their games against Calgary out-of-the-way, they can focus on their remaining opponent and try to put themselves in a position for a high seed when the post-season comes along.
The season is a long one, and champions can come out of nowhere by the time the post-season rolls around. The Canada West Conference is full of talent from top to bottom, and when the playoffs are in full swing, anything can happen.
But, for now, the Dinos are the top dog in the conference and they have shown zero signs of slowing down on their quest for a second-straight national championship. They have their sights set on a seventh Canada West title, and from there, anything is possible.
Who can stop the Calgary Dinos in the Canada West Conference? Only time will tell, but nobody has been able to meet the challenge quite yet.
– T. Bennett