Entering the 2015-16 CIS men’s basketball season, it had been 12 long years since the University of Manitoba Bisons had seen home playoff basketball. All of that changed this year when head coach Kirby Schepp and company assembled a team that not only snapped the herd’s playoff hosting drought, but also set a new regular season wins record since joining the Canada West conference, going 15-5.
Manitoba’s 15-win campaign was good enough for third place in the conference, and the Bisons will now host the Fraser Valley Cascades next weekend in a quarterfinal matchup at Investors Group Athletic Centre.
For Schepp, Manitoba’s performance this season means much more than just the record and ability to host. It’s a statement that the quality of CIS competition in the province deserves to be respected – something that wasn’t necessarily the case when he inherited the head coaching position for the 2009-10 season. At that time, the Bisons hadn’t seen the post-season since 2004.
“People saw both programs [Manitoba and Winnipeg] in the city as not winners and not something they wanted to be a part of,” Schepp said.
“Winnipeg’s certainly done well in the last few years and they’ve brought things around. Obviously I’m really proud of what we’ve done here and gradually each year we’re getting better and better and better and being more competitive and more consistently a playoff team.”
Since 2009-10, the Bisons have now made the playoffs in four of Schepp’s seven years with the squad, including 2012-13, where they were just one win away from ending the playoff-hosting slump three years early. Unfortunately, they fell just short in the final game of the season – something that current members Wyatt Anders, AJ Basi, Brett Jewell, and Amir Ali have not forgotten, as they were all on the 2012-13 roster.
“I think with that team [2012-13] we were the number-one team or tied for first going into the last game of the season and we dropped it in a heartbreaker to the [Winnipeg] Wesmen, ending up missing two free throws to win it,” said Ali.
“That put us on the road and we were playing at Victoria in a best of three series in a packed, loud gym and we couldn’t pull it off. Even though we had a great team that year it just goes to show how much that home support can do for you.”
That result wasn’t duplicated this past season as Manitoba went 8-2 in the second half of the season – including winning their last seven straight games. Every player – starter or reserve – has had a role in the Bisons’ success, something that Schepp was quick to point out, especially when critical playmakers in Anders and Ilarion Bonhomme II went down at times.
“It’s always rewarding as a coach to see when you go through that adversity and when things happen, other people step up and perform in big situations and that’s certainly happened,” Schepp said.
With a strong mixture of playmakers on their roster and the playoff drought now over, the next step for Manitoba is proving they’re good enough to make it to the CIS Final Eight. Based on their performance in the regular season, there’s no reason that can’t happen in 2015-16.