Well, it wasn’t always pretty, but we made it, BlackJacks fans. After a hectic 14-game season that went by far too fast, it’s time for the postseason.
Sure, Ottawa only made the playoffs because Saskatchewan was absolutely dreadful this year. Yes, they were in a position to control their own destiny and end the year in a much better position but failed to do so. And, okay, they now have to face a team and star player who has absolutely eaten them alive this year.
But we’re here! And in a single elimination tournament, anything can happen. So, let’s cross our fingers and toes, say a little prayer, and look at how the BlackJacks can pull off the upset.
Despite their high seed, the Hamilton Honey Badgers actually come into the playoffs on a bit of a skid. Much like Ottawa, they had the opportunity to end the year higher in the standings, but they dropped a two-game series against the Niagara River Lions to lose the second-seed and the quarterfinals bye that it comes with.
Hamilton has had nine days off since ending their season, and they’ve no doubt spent the entirety of that team stewing over those losses. That’s probably bad news for the BlackJacks, given the amount of success the Honey badgers have had against them without being angry. They went 2-0 against their provincial rivals, with a large portion of that success being owed to Lindell Wigginton. The MVP-candidate and shoe-in for Canadian of the Year finished the season averaging 22.1 points-per-game, but averaged 32.5 in 2 games against the BlackJacks.
Not on the team has they vie for a championship will be Kalif Young. The 6-9 forward played in every game for the team this year, leading them in rebounds with 6.8 per-game. He’ll be away from the team as he starts his season in Poland. Despite not being a great sorer this year, he’ll be missed dearly by Hamilton. His size and presence in the paint was a huge factor for a team that lacks in that department otherwise. Much of the pressure to guard down low will now be shifted to U SPORTS player Thomas Kennedy.
Getting to see his first real playing time as a pro, the University of Windsor star averaged 5.2 points and 4.5 rebounds over 13 games. Though he only shot 36.5%, he was much more impactful on defense. Perhaps most impressively, he limited Nick Ward to just 10.5 a game in the season series. The team will look to him – as well as veteran Kenny Ejim and mid-season acquisition Nino Johnson – to slow down the BlackJacks intimidating size up front.
On the offensive side, the Honey Badgers have a number of options to turn to. As stated before, everything this team does runs through Wigginton. He was second in the league in points-per-game (leading the league in total points scored), and led the team in assists. While only one other player finished the season with double-digit scoring averages, there’s nonetheless a plethora of players who are able to step up and take over games.
Cody John is one of the favorites to win the CEBL’s first ever Sixth Man of the Year award. The former Weber State star came off the bench every game this year, but still managed to put up 8.9 points on a ridiculous 55% field-goal shooting. J-V Mukama averaged 9.9 points on the year, while another U SPORTS player, Keevan Veinot, spent half the year as a healthy scratch but showed his scoring ability by putting up 40 points over a two-game stretch against Guelph.
The big key for the Honey Badgers if they want to go on a long playoff run will be the play of Trevon Duval. Despite averaging 10.8 points-per-game and appearing in all but one contest this year, it has to be seen as a disappointing showing for the former Duke starter. He came to the CEBL after appearing in over 70 games in the G-League, and was expected to form a star backcourt alongside Wigginton. Though he started off hot out of the gate, his game soon trailed off and he began to lose minutes to some of the team’s other shooters. Still, no one should doubt his ability to take over a game if he gets hot, and if he is able to sustain a high level of play, the Honey Badgers have to be seen as serious championship contenders.
Lucky Rabbit’s Foot
Make no mistake about it, the BlackJacks are going to have to pull off a mini miracle in order to make this happen. Fortunately for them, they’ve already sort of done that this season when they became the 1 in the Edmonton Stingers 13-1 record.
As I’ve written in what I can safely assume has been every article, Ottawa will need to jump on Nick Ward’s back to get the win. Though he’s struggled against Hamilton this season, the fact is he’s just a better forward than anyone the Honey Badgers have on their roster. They may have game planned well against him in the first two meetings, the responsibility will fall on the BlackJacks coaching staff to cook up new schemes to get Ward the ball, and continue to do so for the entirety of the game. There’s been far too many contests this year when Ward has started off hot, the defense made adjustments, and Ottawa had no new answers to counter. If that happens again on Saturday, the BlackJacks season will come to a quick and sudden end.
That said, there are players on the roster who can help carry the load. Tyrell Green has scored at least 15 points in 4 of the last 6 games. He’s a 6-7 guard with a high release point on his shot. When he gets a hot hand, he’s one of the best shooters and almost impossible to guard. However, since it’s such a wacky release, it can sometimes take him a while to get into his rhythm. Despite his size, he doesn’t rebound or play in the paint particularly well, and he’s not a very good playmaker. It means when he isn’t making shots from outside, he’s virtually invisible in the game. The team will need to feed him early and often in hopes of having him contribute. He’s been an X-factor all season and will need to do so again.
Kadre Gray finished the season second on the team in scoring with 14 points-per-game. However, he started the season scoring 20 or more points in 3 of the first 4 games. Since then, he has yet to hit that watermark. In fact, he’s only averaged just over 10 points a game since then. When he’s scoring, he’s a threat from everywhere on the court. When he’s not, he can be very turnover prone as he tries to get his game going.
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s actually been a U SPORTS star who’s been the team anchor. Alain Louis is a dogged player who haunts everyone he’s matched up against. He can lock down some of the best perimeter players in the league, and the matchup between he and Wigginton should be thrilling.
The BlackJacks have actually struggled to protect the paint all year. Though they have plenty of size, Ward can be slow of foot on that side of the ball. Teams have taken advantage by having players cut in off ball and feeding them in the post. It’ll be a challenge for Louis, Earl Calloway and Junior Cadougan – the best defenders on the team – to keep the Honey Badgers in front of them on the outside.
Also, the team has struggled with giving up offensive rebounds and turnovers. Those are things that should have been cleaned up early in the season, but it plagued them all season. Hopefully, the break before the start of the postseason gave them an opportunity to clean things up on that end.
This will be a David vs Goliath matchup for sure. Ironically, it’s the BlackJacks who have the literal Goliath on their side in Ward.
Outside of Wigginton, I feel like the BlackJacks match up pretty well against the rest of the Honey Badgers. It’s not like either game this season was a total domination; Wigginton has been the deciding factor. The River Lions showed that this Hamilton team is still very much human and can have off nights. The BlackJacks will need to force them into having another one to take the victory.
Overall, Ottawa has to make this a gritty, slow, low scoring game, much like they did against Edmonton. Hamilton is dangerous when you let them run or give them chances, like off turnovers or offensive rebounds. Slow the game down, take care of the ball and your assignments, and you have a chance.
On paper, this is probably the worst match up Ottawa could have hoped for in the first round. But games aren’t won on paper. The BlackJacks are a live dog. Let’s see if they can get it done.