To be sure, earning the right to host a first-round Canada West playoff series is heady stuff for the University of the Fraser Valley men’s basketball team.
But don’t try telling either of the Cascades that they’re favoured heading into their respective best-of-three set, which tips off on tonight at the Envision Athletic Centre. They’ll swat away that notion like a weak finger-roll in the lane.
“We’ll relish the role of underdog,” said UFV men’s head coach Barnaby Craddock, looking ahead to his team’s clash with the Lethbridge Pronghorns.
Cue the sound of a needle scratching across a spinning record.
The underdog label seems like a square-peg, round-hole scenario for Craddock’s Cascades – they’re ranked No. 4 in the nation, and are viewed as a legit threat to advance to the CIS national championships. They finished the Canada West regular season with a 13-5 record to earn the Pacific Division’s No. 2 seed, while Lethbridge, the No. 3 seed from the Prairie Division, barely finished above .500 at 11-9. The UFV men, furthermore, fashioned a sparkling 8-1 record at home.
But as it happens, that lone homecourt defeat came at the hands of the Pronghorns – they won 87-78 back on Jan. 7. That game ended with Craddock spiking his suit jacket on the hardwood – part of a late-game tirade at the referees that saw the UFV bench boss ejected.
His displeasure with the officiating that night aside, Craddock emphasizes his team was out-played by the Pronghorns. And if there were any danger about the lofty national ranking inflating the Cascades’ collective ego, facing Lethbridge in the first round ensures they’ll be a hungry, focused group.
“They really took it to us, so I guess in a way, against this team specifically, we are underdogs,” UFV power forward Kyle Grewal said, echoing his coach. “They’re the only team that beat us in our gym this season, and we’ve got to show everyone that we can play better.”
Point guard Daryl Cooper is Lethbridge’s leading scorer at 16.2 points per game, but it’s the Pronghorns’ depth in the post that makes them a tough foe. They boast a stout starting frontcourt in 6’6″ power forward Dominyc Coward (15.0 points per game, 9.8 rebounds) and 6’7″ centre Derek Waldner (9.6 points, 7.7 rebounds), and they have the luxury of bringing in 6’10” Nikola Kovac off the bench.
The Cascades have their own terrific post trio in Grewal (6’6″), Jasper Moedt (6’7″) and Mike James (6’6″, pictured above). Those players helped UFV win the rebounding battle most nights – they were third in Canada West with a +6.4 rebounding margin. But Lethbridge was right behind them in fourth, at +6.0.
“Perhaps there are some teams where we have a size advantage, but Lethbridge isn’t one of them,” noted Craddock. “It’s been a long season, a lot of work to get to this point, and we’re antsy to get the playoffs started.”