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Bruins and Ravens and Wins: Hey, WHY?

It’s all so blasé, a profoundly bland kind of humdrum yeah, so what? Even for those who actually pay attention, it gets taken for granted, but for the majority of people here in the capital of Canada an incredible sporting success story is little known and cared about less. Folks might have heard that one of those cute university sports teams, the one at Carleton – yeah, and it’s not even the hockey team, I think it’s basketball – well, it wins. A lot. A few national championships there, some will know; they’ll even sometimes play a game at the home of the NHL Senators. (Most recent commercial nomenclature: Canadian Tire Place. What it’s not called, but is: House of Hockey Worship; Puck Pagoda; Temple of Higher Shinny.) The Sens are fairly supportive, doing their good corporate-citizen best, but this remarkable basketball story, even with maxed-out local interest, gets the Place less than half full.

So listen up, Ottawa. Be warned, Canada! And pay attention down there, Excited States of Basketball – the Carleton University Ravens are poised to do something long thought to be undo-able, for any sports team, anywhere.

He hated being called the Wizard of Westwood: "Success comes from hard work and careful planning."

He hated being called the Wizard of Westwood: “Success comes from hard work and careful planning.”

Have you ever heard of John “They Call Me Coach” Wooden? He died at 99 in 2010, having retired from the most distinguished coaching career in North American sports history by 1975. His UCLA Bruins squads – led by players like Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Marques Johnson – had a string of dominance that everybody knows will never again be seen in basketball. The Walton Gang won 88 games in a row in one epic early-‘70s stretch. (Heck, that was big news even in hockey country back then. In fact, I could sometimes watch a game on live television.) What may be news to you, though, is that from 2003 to early in 2006, this northern hoops outpost saw the Ravens (well, some of us saw some of them), in their first run of championships, win 87 straight Canadian Interuniversity Sport games. At the time, I thought the basketball gods were watching, even if most Canadians weren’t, and the streak stopped just before matching the unmatchable 88.

Here’s the other thoroughly ridiculous number that capsulizes Coach Wooden’s mountain of success: during the last 12 years of his already outstanding coaching career¹, his Bruins won TEN (10!) national championships. (Two other coaches managed four titles, his nearest NCAA peers.) In case you missed it, and you probably did, Dave Smart and his Ravens last March matched that holy sports statistic, winning the CIS title for the tenth time, also in twelve seasons. They hoisted the W.P. McGee (a classic trophy that is nearly as cool as the Stanley Cup) for a 10th occasion in Smart’s first 15 years as a collegiate bench boss. He’s not yet 50 years old.

¹ He was also one of the greatest players of the first half of the 20th century, a basketball Hall of Fame honouree in two categories. Besides Wooden, only Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman have turned that double.

They don’t call him Coach. He’s Dave, always has been since the youthful beginning of his astonishing career. Even when he was a scoring star in his own CIS playing days, it was coaching that called him. At first, nephews abounded. Smart, in his 20s, was already a noted high school coach and had founded club teams to develop the talents of his brother’s and sister’s sons. Four played for him at Carleton, with three achieving All-Canadian status and multiple championships. One, Rob Smart, is his lead assistant now. They were never going to call him “Uncle Dave” of course, not while he was relentlessly asking them and their eager fellow inmates for more, more, MORE, and though he’s among the most successful mentors in Canadian sporting history (and in the annals of college basketball anywhere), “Coach” just never stuck. Aside from a shiny dome, Smart still has the same trim, supple appearance as when I first knew him, when he was about to play one final season for Queen’s University and, incidentally, lead the nation in scoring. He left two years of eligibility on the table because he burned, in a most un-Canadian way, to be a professional basketball coach. Nearly 25 years later, one of the great chapters in basketball excellence is being written and rewritten, and hardly anybody reads it.

When the American journalist Jordan Conn wrote his accurate and admiring profile in the electronic pages of Grantland.com last January (“The Canadian College Basketball Dynasty You’ve Never Heard Of”), Tyson Hinz and Kevin Churchill had only won three straight McGees. In March, I watched a low-quality live-stream on my laptop – this was a million miles from the high-production excitement of the big-money March Madness broadcasts – of the CIS title game. The feed wasn’t as bad as usual, because the game began at 3 a.m. in my ninth-floor, Internet-shaky extra bedroom in northeastern China. Deprivation makes for gratitude: I was wearily amped to see the Ravens win their fanatically dedicated and talented tenth Canadian laurel. How did they keep on doing this?

Two real students (who can PLAY) and a superb trophy: Churchill, Hinz and McGee.

Two real students (who can PLAY) and a superb trophy: Churchill, Hinz and McGee.

So, in 2013, Kevin and Tyson each had his fourth CIS banner to help raise, and by this summer Churchill was continuing his Master’s degree in Philosophy – yes, philosophy – and had signed on as one of Smart’s unpaid assistants. Hinz, meanwhile, has a degree in Commerce and a European pro contract that couldn’t have been hurt by his having been named the CIS Player of the Year earlier in his Carleton career. They’re gone, though, those two Ravens fixtures on last year’s totem pole, so it might not seem likely that the team could repeat, could for the second time in Smart’s tenure win a fifth consecutive championship.

Unless, that is, you know that the reason Hinz didn’t win more national honours (and don’t be deceived by his choir-boy skinniness, the guy could beat you in dozens of ways) was that the last THREE PoY trophies went to his younger teammate, Philip Scrubb, who’s back for one more season. Oh, and that Phil’s big brother Tommy, the reigning national defensive PoY and a fellow National Team member, is also back in search of “one for the thumb”, if Canadian college teams even get championship rings. (Doubtful, unless they come from a gumball machine.) They’re not as strong in the post (big guy) positions this year, but the team is fast and skilled and there are shooters all over the place.

The first five Carleton title teams were loaded with local Ottawa kids, but now they’re just loaded. Players are coming from across the country — for the winning, of course, but especially for the amazing level of individual development that they get in Ottawa — in the same way that Wooden’s southern California success began to attract east coast players like Walt Hazzard and Kareem. Consider: of the eight freshmen on this year’s Ravens squad, four of whom will be non-roster “redshirts” to preserve their eligibility, three are from southern Ontario, two are from Saskatchewan, and one each call Alberta and British Columbia home. Smart will be looking for serious contributions from at least three players in their first or second years, so it’s a young squad, and vulnerable. Heck, if you listen to Dave Smart, they’re not even the best team in their own town. The University of Ottawa, a run ‘n’ gun shooting machine that knocked off the Indiana Hoosiers in exhibition play this summer, were the only team to beat the Ravens last season, and played them again in Carleton’s now we have ten! finals win last spring.

Oh, yes. That game? It was played in Ottawa at the home of the Sens. Two local teams were vying for national laurels and local bragging rights in the hometown ice palace, and about 7000 people were there. Call me a homer, and I am certainly am a little unbalanced when it comes to basketball, but as an exasperated Smart repeatedly says to his pressure-cooked players, Are you kidding me? Incredible basketball goes down in our town, and most people barely notice. My jaw was on the floor when glitzy Grantland did.

The night after OttawaU had given it a slap across the face, that legendary Hoosiers program defeated the Ravens. This was back in August, with Smart and Phil Scrubb still in Europe with the National Team. One is the lead assistant coach, and the other is a CIS player working silently, furiously, and skilfully not only to win his fifth national title but also to carve out an unlikely place for himself among Canada’s growing roster of NBA athletes. Following that, Carleton comfortably won four matches against other NCAA teams, including two systematic dismantlings of the Memphis Tigers, a major

Phil to the rack against the Memphis Tigers in August. (Ottawa Citizen photo)

Phil to the rack against the Memphis Tigers in August. (Ottawa Citizen photo)

player in the American high school recruiting wars. The Ravens, meanwhile, are players who received little or no serious attention from the scholarship peddlers down south, but who often finish their university careers with a professional contract and a legitimate degree. Last summer, more eyes were opened when CU knocked off the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that went to the NCAA Final Four and is nationally prominent again. The Ravens then, after a couple of other thrashings of surprised American squads, dropped an overtime thriller to the Syracuse Orangemen, who were ranked number one in the U.S. for a good part of the 2013-2014 season.

Phil, 23, is a 6'3" point guard gunner. Tommy is a lanky, funky 6'6" wing. They're ready for the Dome.

Phil, 23, is a 6’3″ point guard gunner. Tommy is a lanky, funky 6’6″ wing. They’re ready for the Dome.

Carleton will travel down to the famous and famously huge Syracuse University Carrier Dome, one of the iconic fortresses of NCAA basketball supremacy, this coming weekend. The Orangemen will be ready, they’ll be at home and, more importantly, in season instead of on a summer jaunt. It’s early for them, but still: the size, power and speed of the Syracuse athletes will loom over the Ravens, and so will upwards of 30,000 drank the Koolaid, going back for re-fills orange-clad fanatics. I would doubt the Ravens’ chances to win in such a place, against such a team, if they did not do the wildly improbable as a matter of course. They will compete ferociously, and play with incredible focus and discipline, and rebound like madmen, and Smart will seethe with impatience that they aren’t doing so more perfectly. It will be a battle, and the reputation of Canadian hoops and of the Carleton program in particular will rise a little more. Syracuse fans will be scratching their heads. Who are these guys?

For CIS teams, there’s no mystery. Here They Come Again. The Ravens won three September games in the University of Victoria tournament, each by 20 points or more. Their home tourney in October contained even worse news for the CIS: l’Universite de Laval played pretty well and managed to lose by “only” 32, but the other two matches had 46- and 51-point final margins, with Smart substituting more liberally with his youngsters. Yeesh. From his perch in the Great Coaches Lounge above, John Wooden may be gripping his famous rolled-up program tightly, because the championship record that was never to be broken was tied by Carleton last year, and the Ravens don’t rest. Eleven Titles in Thirteen is no lob, but they will start the campaign as the team everyone will shoot for. For the last dozen years, they always are. If Coach Wooden tunes into the relentlessly high expectations, and the constant teaching and cajoling of each tightly-scripted Ravens practice, I expect that he’d nod his head in approval.   

Comment (1)

  1. Mike

    Wow! Can’t believe I read the whole thing! Still not a fan of basketball, but this coach sure earns my respect. Not for winning, although he has an impressive record. Rather, I am impressed by his passion, his love of and dedication to the game; and his humility. It sounds like he just goes about building winning teams quietly, unassumingly, and all for the betterment of the player. It is refreshing to hear of someone’s bottom line isn’t financial gain or public notoriety. He probably doesn’t even have an understanding of what he has accomplished and only looks at statistics to analyze games and players.

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