03/16/2012 03:59 EDT | Updated 05/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Regina Cougars favoured as CIS women's basketball championships begin

CALGARY - Dave Taylor has been to a lot of Canadian university women's basketball championships as assistant or head coach in Regina, but since he took the top job he has yet to bag the big prize.

This year, his Cougars are favoured to take home the Bronze Baby trophy but he says it's one of the strongest fields he's ever seen.

"I've been at 11 of these in the last 13 years," he said as eight teams prepared to square off this weekend in Calgary.

"This is the deepest one I think I can remember. There were really no upsets in the playoffs, so all the teams we kind of thought were going to be there are.

"It's also the first time I can remember there is no prohibitive favourite. . . Most years, in the past, there's been a Simon Fraser or even Windsor last year, teams you looked at and, unless they really had an off night, they're the big favourites."

The Windsor Lancers broke Western Canada's almost 20-year grip on the Canadian Interuniversity Sport title last year at home, beating the University of Saskatchewan Huskies 63-49.

"This year there's probably four teams for sure that on any given night can beat everybody and there's eight teams that for one time will have a shot," says Taylor.

At the top of that list are the UBC Thunderbirds, who knocked off Taylor's top-ranked squad to take Canada West on March 3.

Veteran coach Deb Huband already has three CIS titles on her shelf — 2004, 2006, 2008 — and would like another, but she agrees this is one tough group.

"We're happy with the No. 2 seed. . . . Any way you slice it or dice it it's going to be a competitive tournament and anything can happen when you bring in the top eight teams in the country."

She's bringing the same team that captured the Canada West title, including top playoff scorers Kris Young and Zarah Huntley, both Canada West all-stars.

"We've had a bit of a tough year. We've lost three players to injury but we've been very resilient and been able to manage and play better and better."

Taylor also lost a couple of key players to injuries last season and didn't make it to the party. The Huskies were the only western team in the championships in Windsor.

"It's been a couple of years where we haven't had the results that we would have liked but we're really excited to be back at nationals this year," he says.

His best finish as head coach since he took over in 2006 was silver in 2008 and 2009, although Regina won its only national title in 2001 when he was an assistant.

The Cougars have managed to stay relatively healthy and led the country in scoring with stars like Polish import Joanna Zalesiak.

But Taylor's top six, including Zalesiak, are fourth- and fifth-year players. This looks like a pretty good time to nab that championship if he's going to get it done.

"We lose two this year and the other four next year," Taylor said. "We want to obviously win this year."

Last year's champions are seeded fourth this year, after losing to Ottawa 89-40 in the OUA final. The Ottawa Gee-Gees are seeded third.

"It shook us a little bit," Windsor head coach Chantal Vallee said of the loss to Ottawa.

"It gave us the desire to really work hard and go and get it and know how serious this was. We have to be our best, we have to play our best. I think it really motivated us in that way."

Despite the strong western contingent this year, Vallee says she isn't looking past the first game.

"Our first opponent is Acadia . . . We're just really focused on our first game right now."

The Acadia Axewomen have the fifth seed. The Huskies picked up a wild-card entry and have the No. 6 seed, followed by the McGill Martlets at No. 7 and host Calgary Dinos at No. 8.

Play begins Saturday with quarter-final games. The eight-team competition wraps up Monday with the final.