Most teams play their way into the national tournament. But for those considered for a lone at-large berth, the anxiety of uncertainty is another challenge altogether.
After most University of Calgary Dinos games, Dallas Karch’s father Maury jovially shakes hands with fellow parents, players, coaches and friends, while the fifth-year senior holds a container of homemade cookies to hand out to his team. But on the night of the 2017 Canada West semi-final, Maury barely speaks. He struggles to hold back tears watching his son nurse the ankle he’d just twisted and shake hands with the opponents who’ve just ousted him.
“It was tough,” Karch said, a Calgary native. “It just shows the coming to the end of my career.”
The reigning Canada West champions and national silver medalists lost 74-72 to the Manitoba Bisons at home that evening, sending them into the bronze medal consolation against the Saskatchewan Huskies. They also failed to secure a spot in the U SPORTS Final 8 national tournament in Halifax and instead would fall into the pool of uncertainty that is the at-large consideration.
“Everybody’s sagging,” head coach Dan Vanhooren said. “We still have to figure out a method of playing that third place game and knowing that it matters.”
“But the players don’t necessarily believe you.”
Part of that reason could’ve been because in the powerful OUA conference, Brock and Ottawa would be competing for their own bronze, with many observers assuming the winner would get the berth.
This was not the same Manitoba team that lost to Calgary by 25 in game two of the regular season, that fell by 26 in last season’s semi-final and that got swept by the Dinos in the 2015 play-in series – all at Calgary’s Jack Simpson Gymnasium.
Instead, the Bisons played the way they did on opening night when they beat Calgary 85-81. More importantly, they played like the weekend before, when they upset the no. 2 nationally-ranked, 19-1 UBC Thunderbirds on the road in Vancouver, taking the best-of-three quarterfinal series in two games by scores of 79-75 and 98-96 in overtime.
For league MVP Conor Morgan of UBC, the losses weren’t just unexpected, but almost incomprehensible.
“Honestly, I don’t even know what really happened, Manitoba played absolute lights out,” he said weeks later. “It’s still kind of resonating in my soul a little bit. I’m not really able to explain it.”
The three road victories not only vanquished playoff demons, but also accomplished feats the Manitoba seniors had been chasing long before they put on Bison uniforms.
“It was the most important win in our lives, in our careers,” captain and fifth-year guard A.J. Basi said, one of eight seniors on the team, six of whom are from the university’s home in Winnipeg.
“This group of guys, I’ve been playing with and against them our whole lives from when we were little kids, battling against each other in high school and to come together on a university team and represent our home, it’s been an honour really,” he said.
After going 12-8 in the regular season and never being ranked in the Top 10, beating Calgary was the only way to make the U SPORTS Final 8.
“It was do or die,” Basi said. “Going up against the teams that we were going to be going up against in front of the committee, we weren’t going to get a wild card seed with a bronze medal.”
“We thought Calgary had a chance with a bronze, but we stood no chance.”
Calgary got two shots off in the last 13 seconds, but both missed as the ball was tapped out into the backcourt as the clock expired. Players broke out in celebration at centre court and at their bench, with Basi’s 5’11” 175-pound frame in the middle of it. He embraced head coach Kirby Schepp before being surrounded by his team.
Soon after it was the Dinos at centre court, their anguish a stark contrast from Manitoba’s elation moments before. Fifth-year senior Jasdeep Gill, from nearby Chestermere, bent over in disbelief as his family watched from the stands. Fellow graduate and All-Canadian Thomas Cooper was in tears. Guard Mambi Diawara had his head resting on his fists.
Vanhooren had two duties: comfort his players and convince them they still had a chance, despite the Gee-Gees and Badgers playing to the East.
“Guys can go rogue pretty fast when things don’t look like they matter anymore,” he said.
But for his ball club in that moment, after a turbulent season in which all their losses were by four points or less and amidst a slew of injuries, it already felt like the end.
“I think everybody had on their mind the season was over,” Cooper said. “After we lose regular games, we’re still going to go in there and talk.”
“That night, you could hear a pin drop.”
They would have to somehow get some sleep, arrive at the gym by 1 p.m. and be ready to play the Huskies at 3 p.m., who would have a full day of rest. The Dinos would also have to win without Karch.
“I wasn’t expecting to play the next day, so it was again, is this season over?” Karch said.
He would sit with his roommate and 2016 all-star forward Lars Schlueter, out since late in the year with a high-ankle sprain. While dressed, forward Matt Ellis wouldn’t play due to being sick all week and fifth-year senior Jasdeep Gill was in the lineup, but hobbled with a contusion on his knee and a sprained ankle. As if that wasn’t enough, Saskatchewan’s frontcourt of Shane Osayande and Matt Forbes was the most imposing in the league with Osayande being named a second-team All-Canadian and Forbes a conference all-star.
“It was just, how do you find the want to play?” Cooper said. “As much as you love the game and as much as you love playing with your team, the turnaround is just so quick.”
That turnaround showed early as Saskatchewan jumped out to a 26-9 lead in the first quarter and despite Calgary responding with a run of its own, the Dinos still trailed 51-43 at halftime. They would still be down eight with just under four minutes left in the game.
“It just came to a point in time when we realized this might be our last game together and we should make the most of it,” Gill said.
Incredibly, the team rallied when all seemed lost, with Cooper scoring his team’s last eight points of the quarter to push the game to overtime, where Calgary prevailed 111-106.
“If that was going to be my last game, I was very happy with it,” the 2016 MVP said, finishing with 32 points, 21 coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. “It was all built off those guys (teammates) to be honest.”
While Calgary found solace in its comeback, the Badgers had a halfcourt celebration after an incredible victory of their own, defeating the Gee-Gees 69-67. Brock won its first OUA medal since 2008, got revenge on Ottawa who had crushed them in the regular season and seized the renewed hope of continuing their season. Still, Vanhooren told his team they were in a good position, leaving his players optimistic. But optimism in no way correlates to relaxation as he huddled in his office with his coaches and athletics staff, discussing the at-large criteria.
The berth is based on 10 categories, which are reviewed by a selection committee made up of one coach from each conference. Categories include regular season conference record, strength of schedule based on RPI, Top 10 rankings, records against groups of teams of various success and playoff performance.
Vanhooren laid out every category against Brock on his whiteboard.
“We know we have it,” he said, counting seven of nine categories going to Calgary and considering their equal playoff finishes.
“So you’re thinking okay we’re in, I can’t believe it,” he said.
The conversation amongst players during their postgame meal was positive and although they had to wait until the next evening to find out for certain, the general consensus was one of promise.
Then like a critical turnover at the worst possible time, the momentum changed.
“You find out that there’s some grey areas,” Vanhooren said. “People have been calling around trying to find out what certain rules mean and whether or not the spirit of one was meant to include this guy or that guy.”
The three-time CW Coach of the Year took a pause as he led to what this all meant.
“Now UBC’s in.”
The same UBC Thunderbirds that lost to Manitoba at home in the quarterfinals were not only in consideration, they beat Calgary in several categories, while tying and losing others. But the Dinos newfound uncertainty was one UBC had been dealing with all week back in Vancouver.
“I’ve never been in a situation like that,” Morgan said. “There would be days where I’d wake up and I’d be like, yeah we’re going to get it.”
“Then there’d be days where I’d wake up and guys were kind of down and out and maybe there isn’t a chance.”
UBC head coach Kevin Hanson started to look deeply into the criteria after game one. Despite some commentary to the contrary, he found no rule that says teams must finish in the top three or four in their conference to be considered. Following the series defeat the next night, he told his players – some with tears still in their eyes – that he wasn’t giving up.
“I sat there and said I’m not prepared for a year-end speech and I’m not going to give you one, there’s still a chance,” he said. “We’re going to practice on Monday again.”
“Don’t do anything stupid. You have to be ready.”
The shock came after not only Morgan’s accolade, but Hanson winning Coach of the Year for the sixth time and fifth-year senior Jordan Jensen-Whyte winning Defensive Player of the Year. All of a sudden there was no one left to guard as he sat underneath the hoop following the loss.
“Never really been hit with emotions quite like that,” he said. Like his teammate and roommate Morgan, he gives Manitoba due for their play. But also like his comrade, he finds no full resolution.
“Honestly, I’m not really too sure why it happened or the reason it happened, but it must’ve happened for some reason,” he said.
For Hanson, it would be business as usual with normal practices, weight sessions and psych meetings. Which for coaches means comfort is often a fleeting feeling.
“I didn’t sleep very well that whole week,” he said. “I had neutral people looking at the criteria going okay, where would you have this, where would you have this? And you’re still sitting there.”
Jensen-Whyte and Morgan were part of the 2013 team that won the conference title and the program hosted nationals just last year. For many of the TBirds, it was their first experience with this process and that meant difficulty coping with uncertainty.
“One of the longest weeks of my life,” Morgan said. “Half the guys are really into it and half the guys aren’t and that fluctuates from day to day too.”
Hanson was steadfast in procedure, telling them not to believe anything they read or heard when it came to predictions. ‘Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst’ was his mantra.
“It really took them probably until the Wednesday or Thursday to really feel comfortable that what I was saying wasn’t just trying to be overhyping the situation,” he said. “Because you have to practice, I said just in case we do get the wild card, you have to be ready.”
Hanson credits his team’s effort that week, practicing hard and responding to the challenge, which for a veteran like Jensen-Whyte, reached the point of personal mind games.
“You almost have to fully make yourself believe that you’re going to go,” he said. “The hardest part is people messaging you or talking to you in your classes or your family or your friends call you. Maybe they’re saying great job on your career. But it’s not quite over yet.”
The Canada West Final Four ended on a Saturday and the selection committee wouldn’t talk until after the AUS Championship wrapped up Sunday afternoon. Like Vanhooren, Hanson ruled out Brock and knew it was down to his squad and Calgary.
“I honestly believed or maybe I talked myself into believing,” Hanson said. “But if you looked at it strictly on the number base statistically, I really felt that we had it.”
Back in Calgary, sitting in his office and looking at that whiteboard, Vanhooren at one point felt the same.
“Once UBC was in, I thought the committee would probably put them in,” he said. “But I also knew from being on the selection committee in the past, picking somebody that loses out in the quarterfinals and that isn’t in the Final Four is unusual.”
For Vanhooren, the key criteria he pondered was regular season. UBC had the 19-1 record and hadn’t lost a game all year at home, whereas Calgary went 16-4, with three losses at home. However, because of the RPI, Calgary technically won the conference by earning the right to host the Final Four, even if UBC had defeated Manitoba. (Interestingly enough, Calgary and UBC did not meet in the regular season.)
“Like what does a 16-4 league or conference standing versus a 19-1 actually mean when we don’t play similar opponents?” Vanhooren said. “The actual criteria says conference record, but it was based on the idea that you play each other and you play equally through a league, not the wonky version that we have now. So that’s the debatable one and I didn’t know how that was going to come out.”
While the coaches continued to analyze, players coped in their own ways. For Gill, it was studying. He actually wrote a midterm before the Saskatchewan game and had another deferred to possibly write on Monday, so he was in the library.
Cooper went from high to low. While at the gym, he continued to discuss the varying possibilities, but when he got home that night, he left it behind and put it out of his mind. Jensen-Whyte tried to do the same, watching a movie Saturday night before spending Sunday doing homework and calling friends and family to pass the hours.
For Vanhooren, coping took another form. Cleaning his house.
“It felt like a waste of time,” he said. “You’re waiting to go and if you get to go, you have to plan all this stuff, but you can’t plan it all until you know you’re going…So I cleaned all day. I couldn’t sit still, I just cleaned. My issues showed up for sure.”
It wasn’t just players and coaches dealing with the unknown, as UBC and Calgary’s athletic departments were in limbo when it came to organizing flights, travel and other logistics. Whichever team won the bid would have to be packed and ready to depart for a long Monday morning flight to Halifax and prepare to play Thursday.
Despite some players best efforts to focus their attention elsewhere, it eventually became impossible, especially as Dalhousie wrapped up the AUS title.
“Super nervous,” Karch said, who was with Schlueter at home, constantly checking Twitter. “They had released the women’s Final 8 wildcard, so it’s got to be coming soon.”
Jensen-Whyte and Morgan also waited together.
“We’re sitting there, we’re refreshing the U SPORTS page and trying to figure out who’s going to get it, it was very nerve-wracking,” Jensen-Whyte said. “You start sweating a little bit and a lot of other things go through your mind. Is it over, am I going to keep going, do I have to pack?”
Schlueter was constantly texting Vanhooren for updates while Gill did the same with assistant coach Matt Skinn.
“I hit him up at like 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7,” Gill said. “My deepest concern was the politics behind it and how things go. The teams from the OUA usually get a lot of love, so there’s always that doubt that it’ll go to them.”
“I was more concerned about us being treated unfairly if that makes sense,” Cooper said. “UBC, great season, but we lost once in the Final Four at home, they lost twice (in quarters)… Brock, I think they had a few worse losses than us.”
Eventually, Vanhooren had done enough cleaning and headed back to the office. He got word around the same time Hanson did.
He told Cooper to spread the news.
“I just put it in the group chat: We made it,” Cooper said.
“I was shocked,” Karch said.
The joyful Dinos frantically scattered to get ready. Some were on campus and able to grab their gear immediately before going home to finish packing. Flights were confirmed, texts and emails were sent and scouting for their national quarterfinal opponent was underway.
“Everybody was going crazy,” Gill said.
While Calgary’s climactic weekend ended in playing again, the Thunderbirds week of competitive purgatory was over with the result they had feared. Hanson said he’d gone through the five stages of grieving following the Manitoba series. Now they had returned as he sent a group text to his team.
“But you go through them a lot quicker than over the course of that previous week, because you still have some hope,” he said. “There’s good guys on the committee so I think their subjectivity played a big factor in it, but the rules allow for it, so good on Calgary for going and they played good while they were there.”
Like the rest of UBC’s graduating players, it wasn’t just the end of the season for Jensen-Whyte in his living room, but his career.
“I later on that night went through some photos of the years and obviously you get nostalgic, so it was a very emotional moment and still something that we’re trying to get through,” he said.
For Morgan who is still deciding on whether to return for his fifth year or make the jump to play professionally, he doesn’t think he’ll ever get over the end of 2017.
“Something at the end maybe doesn’t go your way and then you can say okay, I could’ve done this differently, but this year, I have absolutely no regrets about it,” he said, calling this team maybe the best he’s ever been on. “That’s one thing that kind of is helping me through it, I would’ve done everything the exact same. Like you’re supposed to learn a lesson from every season I guess and I’m still waiting to see what that lesson is.”
Always the coach, Vanhooren focused on the challenge ahead. His battered team would have to play powerhouse Carleton, who they lost to in the title game last season. They would get the seventh seed and play the earliest game of the tournament after the longest travel of any team. There were also many Brock fans upset at the selection, which he said gave some extra motivation. Given the eventual results, he was proud of his team, while appreciative of the opportunity.
“UBC’s a great team and Brock’s a great team,” he said. “I think that’s what makes it difficult, knowing and understanding that there are other teams out there that probably do deserve to be in the tournament and that it’s probably a great reason for everyone to consider expanding.”
The Calgary Dinos would suffer yet another injury to one of their forwards and ended up playing Carleton with only eight players. They were down just five points going into the fourth, but simply couldn’t keep up with the Ravens, losing 85-69. But Calgary would get some revenge in their first consolation game against Manitoba, beating the Bisons 92-84 and then blowing out Saint Mary’s 96-65 to take 5th place. Karch was able to play that game, along with fellow graduates Cooper, Gill and Mitch Ligertwood. Vanhooren hugged and thanked each of them as they came off the floor for the last time.
For Cooper, his time in the city where he rediscovered the love of the game was over. He’s called Vanhooren the best coach he’s ever had and even though he spent just two years with the program, he calls his teammates a family.
“To be honest I’ll have better memories from this nationals than the first,” he said. “Showing how strong we are as a group, how close we became. That’s an ongoing process and hopefully it continues to be that way years after this is all over.”
Most subjects interviewed expressed interest in finding ways to expand the tournament. For example after respective conference playoffs, Vanhooren suggested two eight-team tournaments, one in the West and one in the East, culminating in a Final Four. Hanson brought up the idea of one 12-team tournament, where conference champions get a bye, which he discussed at the recent coaches meeting in Halifax. (Requests to Brock for participation in this piece went unanswered.)