Windsor is seeded No. 1 and the Ottawa Gee-Gees No. 8, but Lancers head coach Chantal Vallee says every squad at the eight-team event is going to be tough to beat.
"It's not a walk in the park and it never has been," she said this week. "All the teams are good. It's a different pace. It's a different pressure."
The Lancers kept their three-year unbeaten streak at home intact this month as they defeated the No. 4-ranked Carlton Ravens 56-51 to claim the Ontario championship. Carlton opens Friday in Regina against the fifth-ranked University of Calgary Dinos.
The Gee-Gees finished third at the nationals last year, their best result ever, but in their only meeting with the Lancers this season they lost 71-47. They'll also be playing without Hannah Sunley-Paisley, last year's CIS MVP who has graduated.
Still, Ottawa finished atop the OUA East standings in the regular season thanks to a 16-4 record and got the wild card vote from a committee of four coaches representing all CIS conferences.
The Lancers are returning with all their top players and are about as healthy as they can get, said Vallee.
That includes scoring leader, two-time all-Canadian and former CIS player of the year Jessica Clemencon, a six-foot-three forward from France.
Guard Miah-Marie Langlois, MVP at the last two tournaments, is another returning fourth-year star and this season third-year guard Korissa Williams joined Clemencon and Langlois as an OUA all-star.
"Obviously, I have very good players," said Vallee, but she also says they work hard for their success.
Langlois was named CIS defensive player of the year on Thursday for the second straight season.
If anyone else has an extra edge this year, she suggested it may be host and No. 3-ranked Regina, which opens against No. 6-seeded McGill, the Quebec conference champions. The Martlets squeaked by Concordia 51-48 for their second straight RSEQ title this year.
"The familiarity of the home court and the rims is definitely an advantage of the home team," said Vallee.
She said it certainly was for Windsor when they hosted and won their first championship, feeding off the energy from the home crowd.
"It will be tough for anybody that's not Regina."
Regina Cougars coach Dave Taylor is certainly looking for an edge for this season's Canada West champs.
"I think there's . . . four or five teams in the this country who legitimately can win this thing and we've said all year we thought we're one of them," he said.
"Obviously Windsor's the favourite but playing at home certainly helps."
In his 12 seasons as a coach, however, he says overall it's one of the deepest and most even fields he's seen and that includes McGill.
"They're a very good defensive team and they shoot the ball very well."
The Cougars would seem to be the favourites after their 70-30 victory over McGill Oct. 20 in Montreal this season.
Second-seeded St. Mary's University Huskies, the Atlantic champions, will open against the Fraser Valley University Cascades, ranked No. 7.
The Huskies won their first Atlantic championship in 36 years to move on to the nationals.
Coach Scott Munro — who was named coach of the year and received the Peter Ennis Award — says they have to focus on getting by Fraser Valley. The two teams have never met.
The Huskies have come a long way in just a few years thanks to players like Justine Colley, a five-foot-seven guard who scored 30 points in St. Mary's 90-57 trouncing of St. Francis Xavier in the AUS final.
"She's had an unbelievable season," he said of this season's CIS player of the year. "She does more than score, she impacts all facets of the game. She's one of the Atlantic Conference's leading rebounders . . . She also led the conference in assists and led the conference in steals."
Colley, from East Preston, N.S., is the first player ever from the Atlantic University Sport conference to receive the Nan Copp Award.
The Cascades are making their first ever appearance at the CIS final eight tournament. They've come close before but finally made it thanks to their 68-57 win over Alberta in the Canada West bronze medal game.
Also Thursday, McGill power forward Mariam Sylla captured the Kathy Shields Award as the nation’s top freshman.
Fraser Valley guard Alexa McCarthy received the Sylvia Sweeney Award which recognizes excellence in basketball, academics and community service., while Wilfrid Laurier guard Amber Hillis won the Tracy MacLeod Award for her determination and perseverance.