Andy Watson

VICTORIA – The No. 5 nationally ranked University of Victoria Vikes men’s basketball team resumes conference play on Friday and Saturday night with a pair of challenging contests against nationally ranked squads.

On Friday Jan. 6, the Vikes host the No. 4 nationally ranked Saskatchewan Huskies (5-2) at 8 p.m., and then host the No. 6 nationally ranked Alberta Golden Bears (6-2) on Saturday Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. with both games at Ken and Kathy Shields Court at McKinnon Gymnasium. (LIVE STATS AND VIDEO AT CANADAWEST.TV)

In games that will likely have bearing on home-court advantage in the post-season, the Vikes will have their hands full with two solid opponents. Whoever emerges at the top of the pile after this weekend will be in the driver’s seat to host the Canada West Final 4, March 2-3. The top four teams from the Prairie division and top three teams from the Pacific Division will make the Canada West playoffs, along with one wildcard to be determined by the fifth-place Prairie and fourth-place Pacific division teams.

What it boils down to in the immediate future for UVic is taking care of business at home – first in the opening pair of games in a two-weekend homestand for the Vikes that features three nationally ranked opponents.

UVic senior guard Ryan MacKinnon of Comox, B.C., said despite the lure of looking ahead to what could happen after an 8-0 start, the team is focussing on being prepared for their challenging match-ups this weekend following a gruelling series of exhibition games against three Califorina-based NAIA teams. The Vikes defeated Biola 64-40 on Dec. 29, but fell 87-64 to Concordia and 74-54 to Azusa Pacific, posting a 1-2 record.

“It was a tough experience, they were very good teams,” MacKinnon said. “We realized what we had to work on and where we need to get better. It was a good team-building trip and good for us to get our heads into the second half of the season.”

“The first thing is that we have to take care of the first couple of weekends, play game by game, as cliche as it sounds,” MacKinnon said. “We have high aspirations of getting to nationals and hopefully winning a national championship, but we cannot look too far ahead. We have to first make the playoffs and then work on hosting playoffs. From there make the Canada West (Final 4). It’s a step by step process.”

The following weekend, the Vikes will host the Fraser Valley Cascades (5-3), currently ranked No. 9 in the CIS.

But the immediate focus is the Huskies.

“They are ranked fourth in the country and are a very good team,” said MacKinnon, who leads the squad in scoring and is third in the Canada West averaging 21.4 points per game. “It’s a pretty athletic and large lineup for them (Saskatchewan), with two or three guys who are still with them from when they won (the 2009-10) nationals.

“And they are a veteran team and are used to playing in big games,” MacKinnon added. “We have to come out prepared and come ready to play. They can beat any team. It’s going to be a gut test for us.”

“Obviously, we are happy with where we are right now, but we have not played a Top 10 team yet,” MacKinnon said. “The games this weekend will show us where we are at.”

The clash with Alberta in the second game of the weekend series is an opportunity for the Vikes to avenge the team that ended their season in the 2010-11 Canada West quarter-final series, won 2-1 by the Golden Bears in Edmonton.

“For the returning guys, it’s always in the back of your mind anytime you play a team that you lost to in the playoffs,” MacKinnon said. “We want to win the game and it would make it a little bit special to do it against them (Alberta). For this game, we know Ferguson and Baker are going to score their 15-20 points, we need to contain them and then limit their role players to less than what they are capable of getting.”

“Either way, there will be tough match-ups for every guy on the court this weekend,” MacKinnon said. “We are a confident group right now and I think the biggest thing is that there’s a mesh of many different players with different experiences, that makes us stronger having the blend of young players and returning veterans, it’s a great mix.

“We have a fresh new mindset and we are a team with a new perspective on who the Vikes are and can hopefully deliver with returning us to the national championship (tournament).”