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AUS MEN'S HOOPS: Konchalski back for another Final 6 title shot

St. Francis Xavier men's basketball head coach Steve Konchalski, in his 45th season at the helm, leads the No. 2-ranked X-Men into this weekend's AUS final 6 conference championship at Scotiabank Centre.  Bryan Kennedy / St. F.X. ATHLETICS
St. Francis Xavier men's basketball head coach Steve Konchalski, in his 45th season at the helm, leads the No. 2-ranked X-Men into this weekend's AUS Final 6 conference championship at Scotiabank Centre. Bryan Kennedy / St. F.X. ATHLETICS

It’s been eight years since the St. Francis Xavier X-Men had a Friday off at the AUS Final 6 basketball championship.

Steve Konchalski will gladly take it.

The No. 2 X-Men – along with the top-ranked and defending champion Dalhousie Tigers – have a quarter-final bye at this weekend’s conference championship at Scotiabank Centre and a free pass to Saturday’s semifinal.

The last time the X-Men had a bye, it was the 2012 championships. St. F.X. was the No. 1 seed but lost in the final to Acadia that year.

Konchalski, in his 45th season as the X head coach, knows a bye doesn’t necessarily work to your advantage. And not having one sometimes isn’t a detriment either.

“The last two times we got to the championship (2014, 2018), we had to play three games,” Konchalski said in a recent interview.

“Not that it can’t be done because Dal did it last year. (The Tigers won the 2019 AUS title as the third seed).

“But both of those years for us, the three games took its toll on us and we lost in the last few minutes in those finals. Hopefully we can get back to the championship because we will have fresher legs than we would have if we had to play three.”

St. F.X. hasn’t raised an AUS men’s basketball banner since 2006 when it completed a run of six championships in seven years.

There have been some lean years since but, this season, the X-Men seem to be trending upward.

They boast a mix of veterans, including AUS first-team all-star Azaro Roker, and youngsters, like conference rookie of the year Avan Nava.

The X-Men finished the 2019-20 campaign at 11-9 and secured the second quarter-final bye by beating the Cape Breton Capers in a four-point game on the second-to-last day of the regular season. Of their 11 victories, seven came in matchups worth four points in the standings.

“We had our ups and downs throughout the year,” Konchalski said, “but we also won seven of our eight four-point games. The guys responded.

“It seemed the bigger the game, the better their performances. We have a style of play that takes getting used to but hopefully it’s refined now and we’ll bring it to the table this weekend.”

It used to be a given that Konchalski's teams would play for an AUS championship every year.

He missed the playoffs by a single game in his first year in 1976. Then he reeled off 38 straight appearances, winning nine conference banners and three national titles along the way before missing the post-season in back-to-back years in 2015 and ’16.

It was as if the X-Men took up residency at the former Halifax Metro Centre.

“Some of my fondest memories are of coaching at that arena,” Konchalski said of the Scotiabank Centre.

But managing a team in a conference tournament isn't a cakewalk, even for a coaching legend with more than 900 career wins in Canadian university pre-season, regular season, tournament and playoff games.

“A lot of the work is off the court in terms of being able to eliminate distractions,” Konchalski said. “You have media, special events, parents are flying in, there are a whole bunch of distractions that you have to deal with and those are big factors that sometimes get overlooked and they play a big role in your chances of success.

“Back in the day when young people actually read newspapers, I used to tell them not to ready any newspapers during the week of the playoffs. You get hyped up in terms of predictions and all-star awards.

“But you can’t do that anymore because I can’t stop social media,” he added with a laugh. “Even if you’ve been coaching for 45 years, you have to make those adjustments in society.”

Konchalski, who will retire after the 2020-21 season, has benefitted in having an associate coach working alongside him.

Tyrell Vernon, who played for St. F.X. from 2011-13, was hired by the university last year to work as an associate coach for this season and next before taking over the full-time reins following Konchalski’s retirement.

“It’s the right time and Tyrell Vernon has been a terrific addition as a full-time associate coach. He’ll be ready to take over and I’ll be ready to turn over the reins to him," Konchalski said.

“I want to enjoy the time that I have left. Coaching comes down to two things: relationships and communication with your student-athletes. And that’s what I’m going to miss. Obviously I’ll miss the games. But I’ll miss those relationships with the players.

“What I’m going to do after retirement is another story,” he joked.

The X-Men, who host the 2021 U Sports Final 8 championship at Scotiabank Centre, could have the same roster returning next season, including their trio of fourth-year players – Roker and guards Justin Andrew and Thomas Legallais – for Konchaski’s swan song.

“Everybody is eligible to come back next year,” Konchalski said. “There are a few holes we will need to plug but, as a whole, this is basically the team that can grow together toward nationals.

“This is an exciting weekend for the whole team, especially knowing next year we will be hosting the national tournament at the same arena. It should be an exciting 12-month exercise. But I don’t want to look too far ahead simply because I think this team is capable of winning a championship this weekend.”

The first men’s quarter-final on Friday features the No. 4 Saint Mary's Huskies against the fifth-ranked Memorial Sea-Hawks at 3 p.m. The second quarter-final has the third-seeded UNB Reds facing No. 6 Cape Breton at 8:30 p.m.

Dalhousie will meet the winner of SMU-Memorial in Saturday's first men’s semifinal at 3 p.m. while St. F.X. will play either UNB or Cape Breton at 8:30 p.m.

The championship is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Sunday.

The AUS men’s and women’s champions will advance to the 2020 U Sports men’s and women’s tournament, which is jointly hosted by the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, March 6-8 in Ottawa.

Only the Atlantic conference champions are guaranteed a berth at their respective national championships.

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