It’s been 25 years since the Brandon Bobcats were the dominant team in Canadian university men’s basketball, winning three straight national titles.
Oh how times have changed.
Once the flagship of the Bobcats athletic program, the BU men’s basketball team is in danger of finishing with the worst record of the four teams on campus. It’s a far cry from 25 years ago when the Bobcats were the talk of the town under former coach Jerry Hemmings, who guided BU to national championship titles in 1987, 1988 and 1989. This weekend, the BU athletics department plans to honour the 25th anniversary of that three-year run with a display of memorabilia as this year’s team plays its final home series of an underachieving season. With a 5-13 record and missing the Canada West conference playoffs again, this edition of the Bobcats stands in stark contrast to those iconic teams of the late 1980s.
“Sometimes it seems like yesterday and sometimes it seems like that was a long time ago,” Hemmings said this week. “But yeah, it was a good run, winning three in a row. And at that time I would say there were a lot stronger teams than today, although this Carleton team is kind of dominating everybody.”
Indeed. The No.1-ranked defending national champion Carleton Ravens (18-0) have won a record nine of the past 11 CIS men’s basketball titles, including five in a row from 2003 to 2007. Carleton joined the 1980s era Bobcats and the Victoria Vikes — winners of seven straight titles from 1980-86 — as the only men’s basketball programs to win three or more national titles in a row.
These days, Bobcat basketball takes a back seat to BU’s volleyball programs, with both of those teams ranked in the top 10 in the country as the playoffs approach. There will be no playoff basketball for BU this season as the men’s team has failed to qualify for the post-season for the fifth straight year. In fact, the Bobcats haven’t posted a winning season since 2008-09 when they went 13-9 under former coach and all-Canadian Keith Vassell and haven’t advanced to nationals since 2007 when former CIS coach of the year Barnaby Craddock took them all the way to the CIS final before losing to Carleton.
Getting back to nationals doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon for the Bobcats. But simply getting back to the playoffs should have been a realistic goal for a team featuring a veteran roster led by five players in their fourth and fifth years of eligibility in head coach Gil Cheung’s fourth year at the helm of the program. But it simply didn’t happen for Cheung’s team as it prepares to play out the string in another losing season.
“I’m sure this year it’s probably disappointing for everybody, especially him and his players because they had a nice blend of some veteran players and some good young players,” Hemmings said. “I would think Gil would be the first to tell you that this year they thought maybe they had a good chance to make the playoffs, and unfortunately they had some tough games from the beginning and lost some games and probably had some games that he would probably look back and say … ‘I know these are winnable games and I think we lost some of those.’”
Since going 20-2 in back-to-back seasons in 2006-07 and 2007-08, the Bobcats have lost two out of every three league games they’ve played, with a combined record of 42-84.
And fair or not, while both the men’s and women’s teams currently share identical 5-13 records, the men’s season is seen as a disappointment while the women’s basketball season has to be considered a success, especially after snapping a 73-game conference losing skid.
Second-year BU women’s basketball coach Novell Thomas has built a young team that features both local content and impact import players like all-Canadian candidate Cassie Cooke, who is tied with Jenny Vaughan of the Western Mustangs for the country scoring lead at 23.8 points per game. If Thomas can bring back Cooke and fellow American guard Aleah Bridges, recruit another impact player in the post and continue to develop the young talent on the roster, the next Bobcat basketball team to make the playoffs could very well be the women’s squad.