U Sports basketball championships forging new ground with joint men's-women's event

Canada's best university basketball players won't just be playing for pride and glory in their championship tournament in Ottawa this weekend. Organizers say they are playing a part in history.

Dual tournaments to be held in same venue for 1st time

McMaster Marauders players celebrate after beating Laval Rouge 70-58 to win the 2019 U Sports women's basketball championship. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Canada's best university basketball players won't just be playing for pride and glory in their championship tournament in Ottawa this weekend.

Organizers say they are playing a part in history.

For the first time, the men's and women's championships are being held in the same venue at the same time, jointly hosted by the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group.

"This championship is unique as it truly demonstrates a collaborative approach," U Sports chief sports officer Lisette Johnson Stapley said at a pre-tournament press conference.

Johnson Stapley said the schools' bid for the combined event was a "unique and bold endeavour" that will add excitement and energy to games and associated events over the next five days. She said the sharing of resources and having fan bases for both men's and women's teams together will create a bigger "buzz."

She also said that traditionally men's basketball has gotten more attention so bringing the women alongside the men for the same event may help expose new fans to women's basketball.

"It has the ability to bring up women's sports, to give more profile to women's basketball," she said.

Sue Hylland, the athletic director at the University of Ottawa, was one of a team of three women who first brought forward the idea of hosting the men and women together. She said the joint bid of the two Ottawa universities actually asked to host a combined men's and women's tournament for two years in a row, but U Sports in 2018 ultimately decided to try the experiment for just one year.

The Carleton Ravens won the men's championship in 2019, defeating the Calgary Dinos. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The events will go their separate ways again in 2021, with Halifax set to host the men's side and Kingston, Ont., on tap for the women's tournament.

Johnson Stapley congratulated the eight men's and eight women's teams that qualified for the Final 8 for their hard work throughout the year.

"You've made it and you're a part of history," Johnson Stapley said.

The Final 8 women's teams get the tournament started with their quarterfinals on Thursday, with the men following suit on Friday. Both gold-medal games are scheduled for TD Place Arena on Sunday.

The Saskatchewan Huskies women are the top seed on the women's side and are looking for their second win in school history, after finishing on top in 2016. Last year's winner, the McMaster Marauders of Hamilton, didn't make the Final 8 this year.

Carleton Ravens again favoured on men's side

The top-seeded Carleton Ravens men are making their 18th appearance in the tournament since 2003, a run that includes 14 national titles. They are favoured to win a 15th time, and their ninth in the past 10 years.

This is the sixth time the men's tournament has been held in Ottawa, but the first time it is at the revamped, 9,000-seat TD Place Arena at Lansdowne Park. The previous five men's tournaments in the nation's capital were at the larger Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata, home of the NHL's Ottawa Senators.

This year marks the first time the women's tournament has been held in Ottawa.

Johnson Stapley said organizers have sold 75 per cent of their ticket goal and expect big crowds with three local teams in the mix. In addition to the Ravens men, who earned top seed by winning the Ontario University Athletics title, the Ravens women and Ottawa Gee-Gees men earned the host spots in their respective tournaments.

The event is thus far unaffected by concerns about COVID-19, the outbreak of coronavirus that has affected sporting events outside Canada in recent days. Johnson Stapley said she is relying on the advice of public health officials.

"Currently right now there is nothing to tell us that we need to make any changes to the tournament or any changes to travel," she said.