The place wasn’t even full, for one thing. As the Memphis Tigers returned to the floor 10 minutes from tip-off for the final, all-flushes-flying, let’s-get-this-party-started portion of their pre-game warmup, there were still far south of a thousand spectators in the Ravens’ Nest at Carleton University. True, it was a Saturday night in August, and the students weren’t back yet, but how often do we get to see top American college teams up close?
Hot young Division One coaching star Josh Pastner knows his stuff. (Gettin’ a little chubby, though!) He knew Carleton coach Dave Smart’s Raveniculous record – 10 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) titles in the last 12 seasons – though his ‘Net research was a year out of date, citing nine McGee Trophies in eleven. He knew the Ravens were a precise, rapid-fire machine on offence, and had heard, no doubt, of their fanatical intensity. He probably tried to communicate this to his high-jumping, young squad. He failed, as he might have known he would.
After all, even last year’s Tigers benchwarmers are used to home crowds of
nearly 18,000, as they play in
the same FedEx Forum where the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies do, and not in this bland, amateurish northern equivalent of a so-so American high school gym. As do all the American players who come north for a summer tour of Ottawa, his lads learned. And you can’t prove that I didn’t predict it! I did. The Tigers run an uber-athletic, ooh-ahh-worthy lay-up line, but it looked to me that they were vulnerable to the kind of team blitzkrieg that the Ravens, at anywhere near their best, can unleash.
Three-time CIS Player of the Year winner Phil Scrubb was ready. He’d been visibly sub-par in CU’s win over the UIllinois@Chicago Flames in his first game back with his schoolboys after weeks with the national team pros in Europe, but last night he was a different player. He made dazzling deliveries in the first quarter, notably to brother Thomas for four first-quarter threes, as the Ravens ran off to a 33-15 first-quarter lead. The Tigers were stunned by the speed of the ball movement, and in the second they continued to retrieve a succession of wide-open threes from the bottom of their peach basket. The spread was 26 at half. Twenty-six. Over the Memphis Tigers.
Unsurprisingly, for those of us who know Smart, Carleton’s Coach Dave strode furiously to the locker room to berate his troops. You’d have thought it was his pampered “student athletes” from American basketball hotbeds who had just been blown out by a bunch of non-scholarship Canadians with (mainly) inferior physical gifts. Of course, Dave’s Ravens, too, had been occasionally caught staring at a Tiger vapour trail, stunned by their foot speed and high rises. Smart can’t stand it. He can’t stand any errors, even in August. The Tigers, meanwhile, seemed a what, me worry? bunch as they ran their usual lobs’n’funsies warmup for the second half. I expected a furious counter-attack; instead, the Ravens’ lead got out to 32 after about four 3rd-frame minutes and another Pastner timeout. It was still 27 after three quarters were done.
Meanwhile, the home crowd applauded politely at each Ravens three-point bomb, and a few even started a half-hearted and short-lived catcall of “Air Ball!” after an especially poor Tiger shot. A few hoops-heads hollered in approval of home side hustle or well-timed team defence – (disclosure: guilty) – while Smart seethed at every evidence of imperfection. I was agitated for a different reason: don’t these people realize what they’re seeing? Doesn’t the rest of the city get what they’re not witnessing? Why doesn’t Ottawa go nuts for these guys, or for the OttawaU Gee-Gees across town, for that matter, who’ve been nearly as good for years, and this year might even be better? (They beat the fabled Indiana Hoosiers last weekend, while a Carleton team short one Smart and a Scrubb fell to them the next night by 10.)
Hypothesis One: it’s not a knowledgeable crowd. I sat with an old Ottawa coaching hand, who filled in lots of gaps in my Ravens lore. Lots of other smart coaches, fans and former Ravens sprinkled the bleachers. Still, fan support for CIS basketball is not a deep tradition, tickets are easy to come by (unless Ottawa U is stopping by for war), most spectators like but don’t live basketball and, besides, there are fewer than 2000 bums in the seats on the most breathless nights. (This wasn’t one of them. Even the hyped annual matchup between the Gee-Gees and the Ravens, in the NHL home of the Ottawa Senators, barely gets 10,000 fans.) Basketball, especially the CIS variety, is still a niche sport in most parts of Canada. The NHL off-season gets far more ink, electrons and general obsession. Hypothesis validated.
Hypo2: we’re just spoiled. In his fifteen-year career, Smart’s regular-season record has been an incredible 303-23, nine of those losses coming in his first season, the only one in which his Ravens didn’t win their conference. That’s nearly 93%. Dave Smart’s CIS record over the years of his championship run is even sillier, and looks like a typographical error. He’s already third on the all-time CIS wins list. The Ravens have had 87- and 55-game winning streaks, oh yes, and ten titles in twelve. (Did I mention that? For the 2013-2014 season’s absurd dominance, check his citation on winning his eighth national Coach of the Year award). Yawn. What? Yeah, we’re whuppin’ somebody. So? People: a bunch of Canadian kids are stealing the lunches (politely, mind you) of one of the top 20 basketball programs in the United States of Hoops! Look at the ferocity with which they defend stronger, quicker players! Look at how that ball moves! Watch those Scrubb brothers – dudes can play!
Whichever theory holds more Gatorade, I don’t think we really get what we’re seeing when we watch the Carleton Ravens in action. (In the same way, even most basketball people don’t understand what the San Antonio Spurs, “the Carleton Ravens of the NBA”, are doing, and how.) I’ve been obsessing about basketball excellence for decades, and I’m still trying to grasp and better appreciate it. I lurk in RavensLand – even while I was living in China, I kept up with whatever news scraps I could find, including last summer’s defeat of an eventual Final Four team (Wisconsin) and an overtime loss to last season’s long-time NCAA number-one team (Syracuse). Maybe I was just hoping, but I doubt it: the Memphis warm-up, entertaining as it was, made me think the Tigers might just be ripe for de-striping. Call me Kreskin.
And speaking of predictions, this just in: the days when Smart could never get a dominating post presence — or the nearest likeness to be found in the CIS — are soon to be over. Second-year Cameron Smythe, another example of the recent Canada-wide recruiting reach that the Ravens now have — beginning with New Brunswick’s Elliot Thompson and epitomized by the B.C.-bred Men of Scrubb, is going to be an All-Canadian and a force. He’s 6’11”, painfully skinny but much stronger than he was during his minimal freshman minutes; I never saw him play last year, though he apparently had tantalizing short-term explosions against weak opponents. (He’s one of four British Columbia imports; I feel a little sorry for the UBC Thunderbirds, a good Canadian program now getting worked over in recruiting as it has been on court at Nationals too many times.)
I’ve now seen Smythe play three NCAA teams, and he was at his best versus the Tigers. He works. He’s smart. He’ll improve incredibly under the detailed, year-round coaching that Smart and his staff relentlessly offer; my best comparison is former Raven Kevin McCleery, who went from an awkward, marginally talented local kid to a CIS low-post force to a European pro in his five years at Carleton. And he was only 6’7”. Smythe has sweet hands, a nice comfortable shooting stroke, and already sees the court better than anybody not named Scrubb. This has been your warning, Canada. Smythe is a national POY (Mike Moser Award) candidate in a couple of years, and a future national team member. (I like being first.)
Back to the game: a funny thing happened in the fourth quarter, a few of ’em. Memphis began to look more like Americans, though at the cost of frequent fouls (though not called enough for Smart’s liking). It was a humid, rain-soaked Ottawa evening, and frequent mop-breaks were needed. (Tigers’ coach Pastner seemed particularly keen on hardwood hygiene, though I’m sure it had nothing to do with slowing down the pace, disrupting the Ravens’ flow and giving him more teaching time.) Pookie Powell¹ had been blazingly quick all game, but was much more effective running the point in the fourth. Freshman Dominic McGee, another guard, finished with 10 points and showed electric quickness, hops and hands, and sophomore Nick King began to have his way inside on his way to a Tiger-high 19. 6’9″ junior Shaq Goodwin, wonderfully named and maned, began to exert himself like the veteran power forward he is, though he embarrassed his team with a taunting celebration of a putback – it was a nice play, tough and athletic – that brought his team back within, um, 24. (He received serial counselling from the entire Tigers’ staff. He was also repeatedly schooled by Phil Scrubb on switches.) And on the other side of the equation, the previously efficient three-point shooting of two spot-up assassins, Victor Raso and Connor Wood, went weirdly cold. All the Ravens did.
¹ We do not have enough Pookies in Canadian basketball.
² Or Shaqs.
Dave Smart was in mid-season form, apoplectic and incredulous, as the lead gradually fell from 27 to 9 as the game waned. (To be fair, he was this way all game.) His main target, as it has been for the two games since both have been back from Europe, was Phil Scrubb, who accepts the tsunami of tough instruction with a calm that is eerie. It’s five years now for him, and it seems to be working. He went for 35, including a three that ended any hope of a miracle comeback, and delivered 10 often-brilliant assists. Brother Thomas ended with 21 and a slew of rebounds, but the whole game ended with question marks.
86-76? Memphis by 17 in the fourth? Were the first three quarters a mirage? Did the real Tigers finally get their northern bearings in the fourth? We’ll see: they get Ottawa U tonight, they’re in Montreal Monday, and Tuesday night they’re back in the Nest for a rematch I’m looking forward to. If you’re near Ottawa, you oughta be there.