Skip to main content

McGill University Redman Simon Bibeau, left, attempts to block Ottawa Gee Gees guard Johnny Berhanemeskel during the CIS Final 8 in Ottawa in 2013. Carleton has won the past four years.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

When Amos Connolly looks at the current national rankings in men's university basketball in Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the coach of the McMaster Marauders feels a surge of pride.

Then he feels a pang of unease.

For what is quite likely the first time, teams from Ontario University Athletics hold down the first five spots in the CIS top-10 rankings, with perennial national champion Carleton University sitting in a familiar perch at the top of the list.

At No. 2 below the Ravens are their cross-town rivals, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, followed by Toronto's Ryerson Rams at No. 3, Connolly's Marauders at No. 4 with the Windsor Lancers slotted in at No. 5.

There are 47 men's teams that play in CIS basketball divided among four conferences across Canada, with the OUA and Canada West enjoying the heaviest concentration of competition, each with a representation of 17 schools.

According to the record-keepers at the CIS national office in Ottawa, Ontario teams hogging the first five spots in the ranking has likely never happened before. The CIS records on the matter date back 20 years and Ontario teams have never even occupied the top three slots at the same time, let alone one through five.

"There's no doubt about it that the balance of basketball supremacy has definitely shifted to the province of Ontario," Steve Konchalski, the dean of CIS basketball coaches at St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., said over the phone on Thursday when asked about the domination of Ontario teams in the early season rankings.

And Konchalski, the former coach of Canada's men's national team who is embarking into his 40th season as coach of the X-Men, said the Ontario coaches owe a debt of gratitude to Dave Smart, the Ravens coach, for the positive state of basketball affairs in the province.

Under Smart's guidance, the Ravens have shot to the top of the charts among CIS basketball programs, winning an unprecedented 10 national titles over the past 12 years, including the past four in a row.

"There's no question about it, Dave has raised the bar in Ontario," Konchalski said.

The rankings are conducted each week over the course of the 2014-15 CIS season and voted on by the coaches and Connolly obviously is happy that his Marauders are thought of so highly so early in the season. The OUA regular season only just started this week and McMaster's first game is Friday night against the Gee-Gees.

Connolly's concern is more long term than anything, with an eye toward the CIA national championship – the Final 8 – which this year will be played in Toronto for the first time in the tournament's history, at Ryerson.

A total of eight teams from across the country will earn the right to play, including three guaranteed berths from the OUA with a possibility of a fourth through a wildcard entry. One of those spots will go to Ryerson regardless, a perk for being the host school in an effort to drive attendance.

Connolly is a believer that the game in Canada has grown to the point where the national championship should be expanded in size, to perhaps as many as 16 teams. That way, he said, all the teams that deserve to go will get to go, which is not always the case in an eight-team field.

He points out that right now, Ontario has the top five teams according to the national ranking. If that ranking were at the end of the season, under the best-case scenario only the top four Ontario teams would qualify for the national playdown.

Connolly acknowledges that it would be a lot more expensive to run a 16-team final and that the length of the tournament, currently staged over three days, would be considerably longer meaning that the student athletes would have to miss more school.

"But the reality is, what are we trying to do?" Connolly said. "Do we want our best teams in the tournament at the end of the year, and how do we facilitate that and how do we create a buzz and what are we doing from a marketing standpoint?

"These aren't questions that I'm inventing. I'm sure these are questions that are happening at the CIS office on a minute by minute basis because it's constantly a revenue thing and a resource thing."

"I think it would be preferable to somehow expand the tournament," Konchalski concurred. "But at the same time the biggest issue with the CIS is always the finances."

Meanwhile, Ryerson is about to embark on a hard sell for the Final 8 to their pro-sports obsessed Toronto fan base even though the tournament, to be played March 12-15, is still months away.

On Nov. 13, the university will hold what it is calling a "kick off" event in promotion of the Final 8 and have procured the involvement of former National Basketball Association player and broadcaster Bill Walton to be part of the gathering.

Ryerson athletic director Ivan Joseph said one of Ryerson's alumni has ties to Walton and was able to persuade Walton to come to Toronto.

What Walton will have to say about CIS basketball, Joseph said, is anybody's guess.

"We hope that people will come, maybe just to hear Bill Walton, but hopefully to also hear what we can offer in the CIS that's coming up this spring," Joseph said.