Change isn't always a good thing.
Such is the case with Canada West basketball and the realignment of the divisions for the 2014-15 season. For the UNBC Timberwolves and their fans, there are some positives but they are far outweighed by the negatives.
On the new Canada West landscape, the Pacific and Prairie divisions no longer exist. They have been replaced by the Pioneer and Explorer divisions, which, as the names suggest, have divided the teams based on how well-established they are within the league. Pioneer teams - 11 of them - are Alberta, Brandon, Calgary, Lethbridge, Manitoba, Regina, Saskatchewan, Trinity Western, UBC, UVic and Winnipeg. Explorer clubs - six in total - are UNBC, Thompson Rivers University, UBC Okanagan, the University of the Fraser Valley, Calgary's Mount Royal University and the newest league member, Grant MacEwan University of Edmonton.
During the regular season, teams will only play within their own division, which means the Timberwolves won't get the chance to test themselves against Canada West powers like U of A, U of S, UBC and UVic. For the UNBC team members - men and women - that's a huge disappointment, one that takes away their chance to push themselves against better competition and more quickly develop themselves as players. For the fans, it also stinks. After being treated to the full Canada West package for the past two seasons, they'll no longer be able to head to the Northern Sport Centre to see glamour teams like UBC and UVic, which have legendary status within B.C.
No matter how you slice it, watching the Timberwolves play somebody like the Grant MacEwan University Griffins just won't be the same as watching them battle the UBC Thunderbirds. Given that fact, it won't be a surprise if overall attendance numbers at home games take a dip in 2014-15.
Wondering about playoffs? They'll be convoluted, but, in basic terms, the top three teams in the Explorer group and the top seven Pioneer clubs will get spots. Teams will cross over to face each other, starting with a pair of best-of-three play-in series on the opening weekend and ending with a Final Four on the third weekend.
Another negative is the fact that UNBC has been knocked down to a second-tier division within Canada West.
After spending years (and thousands of dollars and person-hours) trying to get into the league, UNBC will basically be sending its basketball teams back to college because all the clubs on the Explorer side of Canada West are recent members of the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association. So what exactly was the point of the whole 'let's get into Canada West' exercise? The UNBC teams could have stayed on the championship hunt at the B.C. college level and been almost as well off.
Looking at this from a recruiting standpoint, how do UNBC head coaches Todd Jordan and Sergey Shchepotkin sell a "tier-two" playing opportunity to the top-level individuals they are trying to bring into their programs? It was already tough to pull graduating high school stars away from the bigger university programs and now it will be next to impossible. And if the top-level talent stays away, how will the Timberwolves ever develop into Canada West and national contenders? Common sense says it's not gonna happen.
While UNBC athletics director Loralyn Murdoch tried to put a positive spin on Canada West realignment last week, even she admitted that "no one is happy with the schedule."
As for the positives, there are only two: UNBC's travel costs will be significantly lower because there will be no more trips to Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the teams will have a chance to be more competitive on a nightly basis.
Canada West, perhaps trying to keep negative public reaction to a minimum, hasn't released an official statement about realignment. The schedule, meanwhile, won't be posted online until June.
At the end of the season, the league will evaluate the changes it has made and decide how to move forward.
For the sake of UNBC basketball and its fans, hopefully this effort at realignment has a one-year lifespan.