Griffins excited and ready for Canada West single elimination playoff match vs. Trinity Western

Matthew Osunde and Eric Lopez defend against Lethbridge during a game last weekend (Railene Hooper photo).
Matthew Osunde and Eric Lopez defend against Lethbridge during a game last weekend (Railene Hooper photo).

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Everything they've done all season is to prepare for this exact moment in time, so it's no surprise the MacEwan Griffins men's basketball team is pumped up ahead of Thursday's Canada West playoff opener.

"The guys, myself included, are really excited," said third-year point guard Jesse Trussler. "I've never played in a U SPORTS playoff game, so it's definitely really exciting with the playoff format.

"I think we're feeling really ready to go after this, even though we've had a tough season. We're really excited for the opportunity."

The Griffins (0-16) will go up against the Trinity Western Spartans (8-10) in a single-elimination match on Thursday (6 p.m., University of Calgary's Jack Simpson Gym, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).

Should they advance past that game in the March Madness-style tournament, they would take on the Calgary Dinos (9-7) on Friday (8 p.m.). Win that one and they would qualify for the final of the Calgary-based pod of teams vs. Regina (12-4) on Saturday (8 p.m., all Jack Simpson, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).

"I think single knockout playoffs is something to look forward to because anything can happen," said Trussler. "I think it's going to be a really cool atmosphere. U of C has a really exciting gym, so hopefully it will be a good turnout there. I think it's going to have a March Madness-type feel, for sure."

Thursday's match will mark the Griffins' return to the Canada West men's basketball playoffs for the first time since the 2015-16 season when they lost to cross-town rival Alberta in an opening round best-of-three series decided by one point.

They've never met Trinity Western in the post-season, but hold a 3-1 lifetime regular season record against the Spartans, albeit two of those wins were via TWU forfeit for playing an ineligible student-athlete during the 2019-20 season.

The Spartans of 2021-22, though, are a formidable lot, led by Canada West leading scorer Ja'Qualyn Gilbreath (27.7 points per game) and its top point guard Mason Bouchier, who leads the conference in assists per game (8.2).

"We have a tough matchup," said Griffins head coach Mike Connolly. "We're playing a really good scoring team. They have the leading scorer in the conference and I think they have the best point guard, too. He's very good and he's the straw that stirs the drink. They might be the best back-court in Canada West, if not the country. So, we've got our challenges set for us.

"We've got to defend. We've got to make things tough for them without fouling. And we'll see if our young guys can limit their mistakes. That's going to be the difference. The team that makes the most mistakes is the team that, obviously, isn't going to get it done."

Inconsistency has been an issue all season for the young Griffins, who boast nine players in their first year of eligibility. They've often been prone to momentary lapses on defence that turn close games into blowouts.

"That's part of the process," said Connolly. "Those are the mistakes we've been trying to correct all year.

"Now we're in a situation where when we used to sub someone for those mistakes, maybe we won't, as long as they keep playing well, because we're trying to win the game instead of teaching lessons throughout," he added. "When we were in our season, it was really about lessons to prepare us for this moment because this is the way you've got to play when it comes to playoffs."

The Griffins are still trying to dig out from an unprecedented injury situation that saw them play Trussler for a full 40 minutes and throw a jersey on team manager Bradley Roslinski in order to get through a game at Alberta last month.

The residual effect of that is they've only been able to practice 5-on-5 very few times this season.

"We haven't had our full roster together all year, so we don't know as a collective what we can do," said Connolly. "That's exciting going into the weekend because this is the first time we've had this group together other than last weekend.

"We saw improvements. It's just a matter of how much can we improve until 6 p.m. Thursday? It's all in our heads. We know what we have to do. We've just been inconsistent doing it all year – at times we've done it and at time we haven't.

"We joked about it (on Tuesday) we've just got to hope this is the time we do it great more than the times when we don't do it great."