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Canadian Roundup: Laval Win the 2024 USPORTS Championship

The Rouge et Or complete their improbable 2024 Championship run

A Cinderella run for the ages, Laval University are the 2024 Men’s USPORTS Basketball Champions, after defeating Queen’s 77-71 on Sunday night!

As the hosts of the 2024 USPORTS Men’s Final 8, Laval had seemingly qualified for the tournament on anything but merit. With a lackluster 9-19 regular season record (non-conference and conference play), the Rouge et Or were fairly ranked as the lowest seed of the Final 8. Many, including myself wrote them off.

Saving their best for the post-season and playing in front of a raucous home crowd, Laval took down each of the expected contenders for the W.P. McGee Trophy. First, it was the Canada West Champions and #1 overall ranked Victoria Vikes who fell to the Rouge et Or in a stunning upset. Then came a 24-9 4th quarter comeback against the AUS Champion Dalhousie Tigers in the semi-finals en route to an 85-74 victory. And finally, in a back-and-forth slugfest with the OUA Champion Queen’s Gaels in the Championship game, it was senior Steeve Joseph who stepped up and hit a fading midrange jumper with 26.3 seconds to go.

With their win Sunday night, the Laval Rouge et Or claimed their first ever USPORTS Championship and became the first 8th seed ever in USPORTS history to win the W.P. McGee Trophy. It truly was a historic and remarkable run to watch.

Tournament Standouts

With the 2024 USPORTS Final 8 in the books, I thought it would be a good time to revisit some of the “Winter Core” prospects that I had covered in my preview piece and other players that caught my eye throughout the weekend. The search for future “Winter Core” contributors never rests!

Cole Syllas – Queen’s Gaels

Tournament Averages: 19.0 PPG, 13.0 REB, 1.0 STL, 52.2/41.7/66.7 shooting splits

Had Queen’s won the Championship, there is no doubt in my mind Cole Syllas would have been the MVP of the tournament. Despite finishing 2nd, I think there’s still an argument to be made that Syllas was the best overall player in the tournament this year. In the Gaels’ opening matchup against Winnipeg, it was Cole Syllas who carried Queen’s across the finish line to a 77-76 win. With his brother Luka Syllas serving a 1 game suspension, Cole put down a dominant two-way sequence in the final 2:40 of the game, including a tough fadeaway jumper and the game-saving block.

I continue to be blown away with Cole Syllas’s driving and finishing craft. He’s just so comfortable knifing his way in traffic and slipping through crevices in the defense before flipping in shots from a variety of angles. He was relentless pushing the ball in transition and remained aggressive in the halfcourt as well all tournament long. Here was my writeup on Syllas’s uniqueness as a driver before the 2024 Final 8:

“He’s got an off-kilter, herky-jerky style […] yet he slips by defenders with ease. Amidst all the chaos of limbs in the painted area, Syllas consistently maintains his composure.”

Excerpt from my Final 8 preview piece

Ismael Diouf – Laval Rouge et Or

Tournament Averages: 18.3 PPG, 11.7 REB, 2.3 BLK, 60.4/41.7/62.5 splits

The Final 8 tournament was a coming out party for the 21 year-old sophomore Ismael Diouf. After finishing with a dominant 26 PTS (11-15 FG, 3-4 3P) 12 REB and 4 BLK performance in the finals, Diouf was awarded the Jack Donohue Trophy as the USPORTS Championship MVP. At 6’9″ he is a strong, physical bruising big who can protect the rim but also showed mobility and touch that is rare for a USPORTS big. If you watch the video below, you can see Diouf’s blend of physicality, fluidity and skill that earned him MVP honours at the 2024 Final 8.

In case you needed any more proof, here’s a euro-step reverse finish in the short roll after slipping the initial screen. Diouf is supremely skilled!

Born in 2002, Diouf is only in year 2 of his USPORTS eligibility. He crept up on my radar at the 2024 USPORTS Final 8, and definitely will be a prospect to keep an eye on moving forward.

Elias Ralph – Victoria Vikes

Tournament Averages: 11.3 PPG, 7.0 REB, 1.0 STL, 27.3/20.8/62.5shooting splits

I won’t deny it, Elias Ralph had a rough tournament. He was dreadful from 3 (5-24, 20.8%), settled for a lot of contested, fading midrange jumpers and his lack of production overall was a big reason why the Victoria Vikes had a disappointing run. Interestingly, in the regular season (58 games) he’s been a 43.5% 3P shooter while his post-season (27 games) accuracy is sitting at 24.1%. That’s an absurd split and it’s beginning to become an alarming trend in Ralph’s USPORTS career.

That being said, I still remain high on Ralph’s future pro potential. And even with his poor performances, there were still plenty of impressive flashes, whether it was fitting passes through tight windows, finding success as a downhill driver or crashing the offensive boards. Again if you want to see more of my thoughts on Ralph, check out my Final 8 preview.

X’s and O’s Breakdown

As is tradition with the Canadian Roundup, I want to highlight some of the playcalls from USPORTS coaches that stood out to me throughout championship weekend.

Victoria Vikes – “STS BLOB”

Despite a disappointing Final 8 run, I was impressed with Victoria HC Craig Beaucamp’s offensive system and playcalling. The Vikes run a modern 5-out offense with a ton of “Zoom” action for their star PG Diego Maffia. If you needed any proof of Beaucamp’s genius playcalling, just look at the BLOB set that he drew up in their first game against Laval. There’s so many screens and curls that I have no idea how to tag this set, so I have settled for “STS BLOB” which just means screen-the-screener baseline out of bounds.

Queen’s Gaels – “Winner” SLOB

Let me set the scene. With 15.3 seconds to go in the National Championship, Queen’s trails Laval by 5. Needing a quick 3, HC Steph Barrie draws up an end-of-game SLOB set that has gained a lot of traction over the last couple of years. Originally attributed to current Boston Celtics GM Brad Stevens, the “Winner” set involves a lobbed skip pass to the opposite corner. The intended shooter then receives a screen before curling into a 3. Raptors fans should be especially familiar with this set because Steve Kerr drew it up in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA finals, and it got Steph Curry a good look that he thankfully missed. The “Winner” action has even made it overseas to the EuroLeague!

Victoria Vikes – “Horns Flare”

Another example of Beaucamp’s stellar offensive system is this classic “Horns Flare” action. The “Horns” alignment is one of the staples of modern basketball offenses and the added “Flare” screen on top is also prevalent across offensive systems. This exact action has been run by Canada’s SMNT as well as the Toronto Raptors, as Samson Folk narrates below.

Dalhousie Tigers – “Veer”

If you’re unfamiliar with “Veer” action, it refers to a ball screen followed immediately by an off-ball pindown screen. The initial ball screen usually occupies the screener’s defender just long enough to open up a good look for the movement shooter receiving the pindown screen. If you’re more of a visual learner, Canada ran “Veer” action under HC Nate Mitchell at the 2023 GLOBL JAM. Pay close attention to Enoch Boakye (#13 white) throughout the play.

Dalhousie HC Rick Plato cleverly integrated “Veer” action into the the Tigers’ offensive system, and the action is so much more effective thanks to the movement shooting wonder that is Malcolm Christie. The Tigers like to initiate “Veer” with the shooter (often Christie) in the weakside dunker spot, before coming all the way around the pindown screen on the strongside. This alignment helps to completely empty one side of the floor, giving the movement shooter more space to attack.