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Heading in the right direction Hope for city's hoops teams

Bisons, Wesmen men's squads looking good

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Bisons are roaming in territory once dominated by Bobcats, Cougars, Huskies and even Dinos.

Some Wesmen are also staking a claim.

For the first time in 21 and 19 years, respectively, the University of Manitoba Bisons and the University of Winnipeg Wesmen mens' basketball teams have a chance to finish the season with winning records.

As the second half of the regular season is set to open this weekend, the 8-3 Wesmen are currently in second place while the 7-4 Bisons are third in the Canada West conference's Prairie Division.

It's a remarkable development as the last time the Bisons finished a season with a winning record was the 11-7 team in 1992. The last time a Wesmen men's team ended a season with a winning record was in 1994 when the team finished 13-5.

Bisons head coach Kirby Schepp, 38, was a member of that 1994 Wesmen team. Schepp has put a winner's stamp on his team this season in his fourth year at the Bisons helm.

"We know it's been a while since both teams were kind of in the thick of it and it's good for basketball in the city. Things are changing, to some extent, and we're both becoming more competitive," said Schepp.

Wesmen head coach Mike Raimbault took over in 2010 and inherited a team that won just one game the previous season. After some players fled the scene, Raimbault found himself building nearly from scratch.

"It's definitely been a trying couple of years to get to this point," said Raimbault, whose teams went 10-34 in the past two seasons. "I was expecting to return a veteran group in my first season, things didn't go in that direction, then rebuilding and going through some injuries. To be where we are right now is nice but it's just something we are trying to continue to build."

Schepp's teams went 21-43 the past three seasons.

So what has changed?

"We have a really good mix of the top local kids who are sticking around and some other guys from outside Manitoba," said Schepp, whose list of local athletes includes fifth-year players Kevin Oliver, Xavier Smith and Jonar Huertes. "We've got a nice blend of solid young guys and veteran guys, three fifth-year guys this year, and that's a nice mixture. As you build your culture, you start to get a little bit of buzz around your program."

Bisons first-year forward Caleb Noel said the team has found a style on the court that fits the group overall.

"We are a running team, we like to push the ball, and there is a big energy level every single game," said Noel, who hails from Montreal.

Raimbault said his Wesmen team's overall depth has improved this season. Guard Travis Krahn, from Winkler, has been a key outside shooter in the starting rotation while Raimbault has also recruited athletic players from outside Manitoba.

"We're able to go relatively deep on our bench and able to sustain the tempo we want to play at, which is pretty important for us," he said. "We're also healthier than we have been since I've been here. We returned a couple of key guys to the lineup like (guard) Andrew Cunningham, who has been huge for us."

In the old Great Plains Athletic Conference, Brandon won 15 titles in 21 years. After GPAC dissolved, leaving Winnipeg, Manitoba, Regina and Brandon to join Canada West in 1999-2000, it was still the Bobcats leading the new division and winning a conference title along with teams from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Calgary and UBC.

While Schepp can remember as a player having to battle the top dogs from Brandon and Regina, now last and second last, respectively, in the Prairie division, he said there is no glory to bask in yet.

"All we're doing is kind of breaking through the ice here. We're not even really moving yet."

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Full slate of university sports

FRIDAY

Basketball: Manitoba vs. UBC, Investors Group Athletic Centre, women-6 p.m., men-8 p.m.

Basketball: Winnipeg vs. Victoria, Duckworth Centre, women-6 p.m., men-8 p.m.

Men's hockey: Manitoba vs. Mount Royal (Calgary), Max Bell Arena, 7 p.m.

SATURDAY

Basketball: Manitoba vs. Victoria, Investors Group Athletic Centre, women-6 p.m., men-8 p.m.

Basketball: Winnipeg vs. UBC, Duckworth Centre, women-6 p.m., men-8 p.m.

Men's hockey: Manitoba vs. Mount Royal (Calgary), Max Bell Arena, 2:30 p.m. (special start time).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2013 C4

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