Although the two schools have always been in competition, Friday’s basketball game between the University of Alberta Golden Bears and the MacEwan Griffins will mark the first time the rivalry will be settled on the court.
On Friday, Feb. 26, the Golden Bears team will tip off against the Griffins in a play-in series, where the winner will advance to the Canada West quarterfinals. Though the U of A and MacEwan each lost their final games of the regular season, both finished with 10-10 records, placing them sixth and third in their divisions and advancing them to the Canada West playoffs.
Since MacEwan was placed into Canada West’s Explorer Division two years ago, the two Edmonton teams have not crossed paths except in exhibition games. The stakes for this weekend’s games, however, will be much higher: one team will continue toward the championship, and the other will go home.
Jonathan Verhesen, an assistant coach for the Griffins who coached the Golden Bears for six years, is excited to play against his former employer.
“I know the coaching staff well (and) I know some of the players, so I’m really excited,” Verhesen said. “The U of A’s supposed to be like a big brother school to us, so it’s exciting that we’re hosting them in playoffs.”
Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) divides basketball in Western Canada into two divisions: Pioneer, which is for more established teams like the U of A and the University of British Columbia, and Explorer, which is for newer schools like MacEwan and Thompson Rivers, who formerly played in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Association (ACAC).
For Verhesen, Macewan’s entry into Canada’s top tier league two yeas ago has given the Griffins a bigger and better recruitment pool.
“When Macewan (wasn’t in the CIS), we looked at the people who weren’t good enough for CIS or maybe didn’t have the marks to get into the university,” he said. “We’re never going to be able to recruit with the U of A’s and UBC’s of the world … but it (has) definitely increased our recruiting pools now that we’re playing in the highest league.”
Even though the Golden Bears and Griffins have virtually identical statistics, it’s difficult to compare the two teams because they haven’t played common opponents.
According to Verhesen, the Griffin’s strategy will be to shut down Alberta’s best players, like top-scorers Mamadou Gueye and Brody Clarke, the latter of which is predicted to be awarded Canada West Rookie of the Year.
“The goal is to try to make Mamadou and Brody’s life very tough, and try to limit their guards and get some wide open shots,” Verhesen said. “That’s easier said than done.”
Regardless of outcome, Verhesen predicts the game will spur the two Edmonton schools to even greater competition.
“This is the perfect way for a rivalry to start, in the playoffs,” he said.
“I think it’s what we need in Edmonton for basketball. It’s exciting (to) see that in other places, like between U of C and Mount Royal. It’ll be exciting for fans all over the city.”
But for Andriy Halushko, a guard for the Golden Bears, Sunday’s game is just another obstacle between his team and the Canada West title.
“This game has the same level of importance to us as any other game this year,” Halushko said. “MacEwan is just another team on the list we’re trying to defeat in order to win the championship.”
“The strategy for the game remains the same: be the best we can be.”
The series will be a best-of-three format, with games being played at City Centre Campus Gymnasium (MacEwan) on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday if necessary. The Canada West basketball playoff schedule can be found here.