The Tip Off BlackJacks vs Bandits

Coming off a tough loss against Hamilton, the Ottawa BlackJacks are hoping to rebound in their first road game of the season. It won’t be an easy task, as they’ll enter the Fox’s Den against the undefeated Fraser Valley Bandits.

Let’s take a look at how Ottawa matches up against the CEBL’s top team, and what their keys to victory will be.

The Opposition

I chose not to do a power ranking coming into the season, in large part because the way the league is built, it would be entirely guesswork, and I didn’t want to look dumb. No matter how much research I did on the teams and players – which I feel I did a fair amount of – it would largely depend on what teams came together the fastest and bought into the system.

All that is to say, I want to thank Fraser Valley for proving me right, as I would have had them in last place.

To be completely honest, the Bandits are just a weird team. They have an eight-man roster (not including the U SPORTS players), have a total of one true forward in Brandon Gilbeck, and their head coach is currently in Taiwan. And yet, they’re showing what’s possible when the entire team buys in to their role.

Filling in for head coach and GM Kyle Julius while he runs his club team overseas, Dave Singleton has a league high five players averaging double-digits in scoring so far this season. The offense runs through third year point guard Marek Klassen, who averages 11.7 points and a team-high five assists a game. He’s joined in the starting rotation by veteran wingman Kenny Manigault (15.3 PPG-5.3 REB-4 AST), legit 7-footer Brandon Gilbeck (13.3 PPG- 6.3 REB), and Jamal Reynolds (13 PPG).

If you somehow manage to slow them down, then you have to deal with Alex Campbell, who despite coming off the bench, leads the team with 17.3 points-per-game, while hitting 50% from deep. They also have former BlackJack Shaquille Keith, who is a 6’5” 230-pound Swiss Army Knife who will play all five positions if need be. Think Zion Williamson, but smaller and without the explosive leaping ability. On the year, he’s averaging 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds a game.

As good as they’ve been offensively, they may be even better on the defensive end. They’ve allowed just 73.7 points against per game, while holding teams to under 40% from the field. It’s worth noting that two of their wins have come against the Saskatchewan Rattlers, who are winless on the season and haven’t been that impressive. But that could just be the Bandits making them look bad. Plus, they also blew out the Niagara River Lions, who in turn blew out the BlackJacks in their meeting and went toe-to-toe with the Edmonton Stingers, even in a loss.

So is their early season success a fluke, or are the Fraser Valley Bandits true contenders? Saturday’s game could give us the answer.

The BlackJacks

After starting out their season on either end of a blowout, the BlackJacks got their first taste of gritty, back-and-forth basketball against the Honey Badgers. Ultimately, early foul trouble cost them as they were forced to go to their bench, and Hamilton took advantage.

Despite all that went wrong in the first half, the BlackJacks were able to come out swinging in the third quarter and even briefly held the lead. Unfortunately, they then fell into the bad habit of trying to outrun the opposition, which gave the Honey badgers the opportunity to take the lead and never look back.

The biggest problem for the BlackJacks this season, as simple as it sounds to say, is that they’ve struggled to put a complete game together. They’ve been able to go on runs where they dominate down low, and they’ve gone on stretches where they’ve gotten hot from outside, but they haven’t really had a complete inside-out game yet. Likewise, their half-court defense has been solid, but they struggle to keep their coverage when the other team is able to push the pace. Lastly, as good as players like Kris Joseph and Ryan Wright have been at coming in settling the game down, they’ve yet to consistently produce at the offensive level. The team needs more than Kadre Gray and Nick Ward to consistently put up points.

There are encouraging signs, however. Gray has been a surprise star, and looks like someone who can put the team on his back. The addition of Johnny Berhanemeskel is huge, as he is someone who can facilitate the offense and put up buckets in bunches. As well, Tyrell Green has had a couple of good games after coming out flat in the opener. And Ward is sure to figure out how the refereeing in this league works, which means he’ll stop trying to milk calls and instead being the dominant force in the paint we all know he can be.

Head Coach Charles Dube-Brais has said the team isn’t yet fully playing the brand of basketball he would like to see out of them. He often preaches about aggression and physicality, which they were able to show against Guelph, but got careless with against Hamilton. As the oldest team in the league, they have a number of veteran players who know what it takes to win. It’s now just figuring out a system that best lets them excel in their roles.

The Breakdown

This should be another incredibly fun game to watch, as Fraser Valley is probably the only team that can match Ottawa in terms of depth, despite currently having a short bench. They will eventually get help in the front court in the form of G-Leaguer Julian Washburn and long-time team Canada mainstay Levon Kendall, but neither are expected to be ready to return on Saturday.

Locking down the perimeter will be key for the BlackJacks, something they have done with mixed results. Klassen, Manigault and Campbell will all look to do their damage from deep, something the team will have to be prepared for.

Something to keep an eye on is if Dube-Brais will take advantage of the huge size advantage the BlackJacks will have in the game. In the past two games, Ottawa has opted to go with a line-up consisting of three guards, a forward, and one of either Ward, Wright, or Tahjai Teague. While the Bandits have Gilbeck in the middle, they don’t really have another true forward currently dressed, other than U SPORTS product Adam Paige, who has only played four minutes so far. Though Gilbeck will be able to guard whoever plays the center position, Ottawa could be able to expose a weak Fraser Valley front court by putting two of their centers on the court at the same time and working them down low.

As is usually the case, the winner of this game will most likely be decided by whoever is able to dictate the pace. If Ottawa is able to slow the game down and make Fraser Valley work for their points and not get into foul trouble again, they should be able to control the game. If the Bandits are able to get out and turn the game into a track meet, they have too many scoring options for the BlackJacks to be able to cover.

With everyone on the floor looking fairly even, this could very well come down to a coaching battle. Will Dube-Brais be able to get the kind of knock them down, grind it out game he’s looking for from his team, or will Singleton be able to get his dreaded rotation rolling early?

It should be a lot of fun finding out.

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