The Toronto Maple Leafs have something in common with the UNB Varsity Reds men’s basketball team.
Like the Leafs, the Varsity Reds haven’t won a championship since 1967. In fact, UNB’s only Atlantic University Sport men’s basketball title came that year.
Unlike the Leafs, the Varsity Reds could very well end their championship drought this season.
UNB will enter this weekend’s AUS Men’s Basketball Championship as the No. 1 seed. They, along with the No. 2 seed UPEI Panthers, have received a bye straight through to Saturday’s semifinals. It’s the first time the Reds have gotten a bye since the 2001-02 season.
The Varsity Reds clinched first place — also something they haven’t done since 1967 — with two home victories over the Memorial University Sea-Hawks this past weekend at the Richard J. Currie Center.
“It feels better than finishing eighth,” said veteran guard Will McFee. “It feels really good. When it’s all said and done, I’ll probably go back and check the archives and just see us slowly moving up [the standings].”
It’s been a slow and gradual climb back to prominence for the Varsity Reds, having finished no higher than fifth since the 2004-05 season. This year, UNB sat in first for most of the season and finished with an impressive 16-4 record. Although it’s been a long time coming for the Reds, head coach Brent Baker doesn’t want his team thinking about the past.
“It feels really, really good to be truthful,” said Baker about his team’s regular season title. “It doesn’t really impact you until you hear it right now and go, ‘really, 1967?’ ” The funny thing is, I always tell our guys that it’s our team and it’s our time. ’67 was ’67 and we’re not worrying about that. Let’s just worry about this season. 2014-15 is us and that’s what we worry about.”
The first-place finish is especially rewarding for some of the team’s veteran players, notably McFee, Ryan Smith and Jordan Irvine who are all graduating.
“We’ve eaten a lot of humble pie over the last four or five years with some of these guys and it’s time to get our own back,” said Baker. “It’s very, very enjoyable.”
The AUS Championship begins on Friday at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax with the two quarterfinal matches. The winner of the Dalhousie-Cape Breton game will play UNB in Saturday’s semifinal while the victor of the MUN-SMU quarterfinal will play UPEI in the other semi. The championship game will be played on Sunday.
A Nova Scotia-based school has won every AUS Championship since UPEI’s last title in 2003. Having the Varsity Reds and Panthers seeded one and two is certainly a different sight.
McFee said the team will be ready to go come Saturday.
“As soon as you go into the playoffs, it’s like a one game season. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done.
“It doesn’t matter because anyone can come out and beat you any given night.”
As for this past weekend’s games, McFee led the V-Reds with 25 points in their 85-66 win over the Sea-Hawks on Friday. Javon Masters, who had to get seven stiches over his right eye after a fall, posted 20 points.
On Saturday, Masters had 26 points and McFee 25 in UNB’s 97-79 win over MUN.