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East-West battle shaping up in CIS women's hoops

Normally, no matter where the best Canadian women's university basketball teams gather to compete for a national title, Western Canada squads rule the roost.

For almost two decades, at least three out of the eight teams at nationals have hailed either from the Prairies or the Pacific coast. And 19 years out of 20, one of those powerhouse teams has taken the Bronze Baby Trophy home.

But because of a new tournament format, the era of Western domination in women's university basketball may be over.

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When the 2011 Canadian Interuniversity Sport women's championship kicks off in Windsor, Ont. on Thursday, the brackets will brim with the names of Eastern schools. The hosts, the Windsor Lancers, are the team to beat. Half of the competition is from Ontario. And perhaps most shocking of all, just one team has qualified from the Canada West conference.

"It's going to be lonely, I'll say that," said Lisa Thomaidis, head coach of the No. 2-ranked University of Saskatchewan Huskies.

The main reason for the change stems from a three-year pilot project the CIS launched this season, which added an extra layer of competition - regional tournaments - to the qualification process.

In previous years, teams in four conferences would compete for a certain number of berths at nationals weighted according to the conference's supposed depth. (Canada West, for example, might get two spots depending on how well Western teams finished at the previous years' championships.)

Under the new format, the four conference winners earned an automatic trip to nationals. The other spots were decided last weekend at three regional tournaments held across the country. The winners earned a berth and the eighth spot went to Carleton University, essentially as a wild card, because Windsor had earned its way to nationals twice - as a host and by winning the conference title for Ontario.

The changes, which could also be implemented for men's university basketball if they are successful, were made in the hopes of creating more excitement around the sport, sort of like the March Madness format in the NCAA, and more fairness.

"There's always been a complaint in past years that maybe the best teams didn't get to our national tournaments," said Jeff Speedy, head of the CIS Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), which has been lobbying CIS to change the tournament format for years.

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"I think you can make that complaint any year. But everyone that didn't make their conference championship this year had another opportunity to win their way there, instead of just magically being there because you're the second-place team, or you've got the wild card or whatever."

Those four-team tournaments - which pitted teams against each other regardless of their geographic location - resulted in two surprise upsets, including a shocking win by the University of Laurier over the No. 3-ranked University of Regina Cougars.

Remaining home this weekend is a pretty hard pill to swallow, said Regina head coach Dave Taylor, considering they've competed at nationals for 10 of the past 11 seasons.

However, he said the new tournament format isn't the to blame for the dearth of Western teams this year. The calibre of competition in Ontario is improving, while some of the top Canada West teams struggled with injuries to key players this season, he said.

As well, Simon Fraser University - winner of five of the past nine CIS titles - most certainly would have been representing Canada West at nationals, if it hadn't made the decision to switch to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division II this season.

There will be some quirks that need to be worked out. Although the idea was to create more hype for women's basketball, the gym was "pretty much empty" when teams other than the host team played at the regional tournament in Regina, Taylor said.

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"The University of Toronto playing Calgary in frigging Winnipeg - who's going to go?" added SFU Bruce Langford, who's been watching developments from afar.

As well, the cost of flying across the country for a two-game elimination tournament hasn't been easy for cash-strapped athletic departments. The University of the Fraser Valley flew across Canada to compete in a regional contest at the University of New Brunswick, for example, only to be eliminated after one game.

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