Travis KRAHN knows how the University of Winnipeg Wesmen men's basketball team has gone from four wins last season to 14 wins and the conference Final Four this week.
It's that little sports intangible that is easily spoken of but difficult to actually wrangle into your room -- chemistry.
The Wesmen will make their first appearance in the Final Four since joining the Canada West conference in 2000, tonight at 10:45 in Vancouver against the Victoria Vikes. The host UBC Thunderbirds take on the Fraser Valley Cascades in the other semifinal.
The good news for the Wesmen is a win and they're in -- beat the Victoria Vikes tonight and they've qualified for the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship in Ottawa March 8-10. It would be the first Wesmen appearance at nationals since the 1993-94 season.
"This is (head coach Mike Raimbault's) first year of having his full team, no injuries and all his guys," said Krahn, a Winkler native who joined the Wesmen last season after a season with Briercrest College in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Association. "Mike's got the players here he thinks can contribute to having a successful program and it's showing right now on the court. We have good depth on the team this season, at the point guard and on the wing, but the big thing is we've learned how to play together."
Forward Benny Iko and guard Nolan Gooding, who missed last season with a knee injury, have been key factors this season with Iko among the conference's top rebounders (averaging 8.6 per game) and Gooding providing veteran leadership.
Point guard Andrew Cunningham, also rebounding from an injury last season, has been quarterbacking the offence, setting a conference record in season assists (163). Steven Wesley was third in field-goal percentage (.572). Krahn has knocked down three-pointers like dominoes with a .405 shooting percentage from beyond the arc and had the third-most attempts in the conference.
"Guys know what we have to do to win, we're just comfortable with one another and you could see it on the court and we're all connected," Gooding said.
"We're at our best when we play fearless, just having fun and playing free. Playing ball like no worries in the world, playing ball like we were when we were kids. When we're playing free-spirited, running up and down, get those open looks and take our shots, that's Wesmen basketball right there."
Raimbault said there were "lots of ups and downs" in the last two seasons but now it feels like it was part of the building process.
"The chemistry with our group has been growing, and our game plan all season long was just to find ways to continually get better," said Raimbault, who knows how to run a winning program. He led the Northern British Columbia Timberwolves to the Canadian College national championship in 2009-10 and had guided the the Brandon University Bobcats to a 20-2 record in 2007-08.
"We're hopeful that our best game of the season so far is on Friday night."
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Canada West Men's Final Four
Fraser Valley (4) vs. UBC (1), 9 p.m.
Winnipeg (3) vs. Victoria (2), 10:45 p.m.
Bronze-medal game, 8 p.m.
Gold-medal game, 10 p.m.
Note: Fans can watch the game live on www.wesmen.ca or Friday at Garbonzo's Pizza Pub on campus (in The AnX at 471 Portage Ave.).