By John DeCoste
University men’s basketball in Canada has evolved a lot over the past 50 years. At the same time, it’s like the old saying – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Fifty years ago this month, the top four men’s university basketball teams in the country gathered in Windsor, ON for the first-ever CIAU championship tournament.
Two of the four teams technically don’t exist any more. Assumption College, the host team for that inaugural Final Four, changed its name to the University of Windsor the following season. Loyola College in Quebec is now part of Concordia University.
The other two teams at that first-ever nationals were the UBC Thunderbirds and the Acadia Axemen, who met in the opening round.
Ironically, when the 2013 Final Eight gets underway today in Ottawa, not only will Acadia and UBC both be part of the field, they will meet in the opening round, as they did in 2011 as well.
The 1963 Axemen team, the Maritime champions, had a lineup that included Richie Spears and Ian MacMillan, both of whom are still Valley residents and strong Axemen supporters, as well as a 17-year-old freshman named Steve Konchalski.
Acadia has had a long history at the CIS championships. The Axemen played in that first tournament – in fact, Acadia was part of the first four – and counting this year, will have played in the last three.
Acadia competed at the nationals in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s, and three times (and counting) in the 2010s.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1988, Acadia attended the nationals as the wildcard with a team that included five Nova Scotian starters, making it to the national final game.
Over the years, Axemen teams have captured national titles in 1965, 1971 and 1977 in three distinctly different eras. Six other times – the first tournament in 1963, as well as in 1972, 1978, 1981, 1988 and 2008 – Acadia was the runner-up.
Five other times - 1966, 1976, 1996, 1998 and 2012 - the Axemen captured the consolation title, losing their first game and not losing again.
Current Axemen head coach Steve Baur, an assistant to head coach Les Berry on the 2008 team that lost in the national final game, agrees there are a lot of similarities between the 2008 team and this year’s Axemen squad.
Both the 2007-2008 and 2012-2013 Axemen entered the season as defending AUBC champs, made it to the conference final before losing, then secured a berth at the Final Eight as a wildcard selection.
Both the 2008 and 2013 Axemen entered nationals as the fifth seed, and had the advantage of having competed the previous season – several members of this year’s team, in fact, will be making a third straight Final Eight appearance.
In 2008, Acadia defeated Laval in the quarterfinals, upset top-ranked Carleton in double overtime in the semifinals, then lost the final to Brock.
The verdict is still out on how Acadia will fare this year, but Baur was hopeful “our previous experience will pay huge dividends for us. There’s no question having been there before takes away a lot of the uncertainty.”
Overall, Baur said, the Axemen were feeling really good leading into the weekend. “We like our first-round match-up and we like our chances overall. As humbling and disappointing as it was the lose the conference final, it gives us a motivation to do better this weekend.”