A Canuck Man’s March Madness

WARNING: Contains basketball. And other things.

But lots of basketball.

The man would be me, and the madness — well, it may be terminal. As an international man of leisure, housework aside, I took in the all-Ontario AA (OFSAA) boys basketball championships Wednesday evening. (Lots to say about that, but not today.) An overnight bus trip and a Holiday Inn morning nap later, I was ragged but ready for Day 1 of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) men’s basketball Final 8. Play started at 11 a.m. in the reconfigured shell of dear old Maple Leaf Gardens, now called the Mattamy Centre and enclosing the Ryerson University athletic centre (and a Loblaws grocery store).I look up at the inner

I look up at the inner dome during games and remember the Leafs -- and the NBA Buffalo Braves! Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Ernie DiGregorio...

I look up at the inner dome during games and remember the Leafs — and the NBA Buffalo Braves! Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Ernie DiGregorio…

I am here because hoops has a hold on me, and especially because of my fascination with the (again!) top-seeded Carleton Ravens. They’re pursuing their fifth straight title (for the second time), and looking for their 11th win in 13 seasons. (This has been astounding for years, and too few notice. I notice. Yes, I do feel lonely at times. What makes you ask?)

I took notes. I noted things like this:

Game 1: Carleton Ravens vs. Saskatchewan Huskies

The Mattamy Centre is a great place to watch ball.  It’s tiny by NCAA standards, seating about 5000, and it’s not close to full. There may be 2000 to 2500 here now, and at least a third, maybe half, are school children — judging by the waving “thunderstix” (who is the genius that we thank for this invention?) all around the bowl bopping along to “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth…”. (I wasn’t among them, but they made me smile.) The floor is laid over a hockey rink, though it’s three storeys above the old MLG’s sacred surface. There are four rows of courtside seats opposite the scoring table and team benches.

And Philip Scrubb, the only man ever to be named national Player of the Year three times — and many Ravens faithful are furious he didn’t get it this year (what, did he get worse?) — is OFF and running and dealing. It’s already 28-10 over the Huskies by quarter time, with Phil driving and firing four three-pointers, including a 4-pt play at the buzzer. Sheesh. Normally impassive on the floor, he’s showing emotion early. Nice to see, actually; it’s genuine exuberance that he’s releasing in his last hurrah, and not Made4TV Emotion. (Heck, this game’s on local cable.)

Big brother Thomas hasn’t scored much yet as of 31-13, but he’s getting the shots he wants. News ALERT! Phil, a 90% free throw shooter, just missed two freebies in a row, and 3 already, so maybe he’s not completely dialled in. At 38-16, and Phil is driving constantly, and going to his dominant right side quite regularly. (The Ravens work so hard on their off hands — they are not allowed to have weak hands — that some teams try to force Phil to the right because he’s become so good with his left. Or maybe he’s just getting whatever he wants.) Oh, and another 3 at 41-16. And another at 44-18. The half ends at 48-18, a spread which Ravens fans are rather accustomed to.

(I don’t like how the competitive conditions change when nationals come. For example, the halftimes are nearly 20 minutes long, which can’t likely be blamed on TV; it’s only local cable for this match, as the national broadcaster doesn’t show up until the semifinals. Still, unrelenting Carleton coach Dave Smart had enough things to dislike after a 30-point first half dismembering of the Huskies, evidently, since his men don’t come bouncing into their layup lines until only 2 minutes remain in the break.) Saskatchewan guard Ben Baker had 9 of his team’s 18; meanwhile, the Brothers Scrubb combined for 40. Well. The first 3 minutes of the second half will be, um, well, routine, from the Ravens’ perspective. What do the Huskies come out with?

Halftime show: St. Martin School and its famous Drum Line. I like drums. I like school kids doing nerdy and enthusiastic things, and this was fun. It looked like mainly grade 7s and 8s, including an exuberant, skinny boy who was one of the three on the team’s banner-bouncing crew. Not content with the rhythmic waving of the troupe’s moniker, banner-boy dances with shameless glee — and he surely won’t do that when he’s in grade 10. Enthusiasm: first victim of adolescence. But hey, go, school!

Matt Forbes was not alone in seeing the driving PScrubb from the back.

Matt Forbes was not alone in seeing the driving PScrubb from the back.

Ravens start the half with a 7-0 run to start. So much for heroic underdogs and amazing comebacks. Not much Phil or Tommy, but Victor Raso nailed several treys, as did the Huskies’ Mike Scott and Matt Forbes to get their offensive output out of the teens. Ho hum. The spoiled and complacent Carleton fans accept it all with a yawn, and prairie fans are few, so it’s a quiet arena, when the kiddies aren’t dancing. It’s 72-39 at three quarters, and at the media timeout at 4 minutes left it’s 83-45, but who cares other than the scrubs — not the Scrubbs — and their parents?. A game of musical chairs at centre court brings back the school-kid interest and noise. 90-50 is your final. Phil was player of the game, along with the Husky Mr. Baker. He’s a nice player, but Carleton ensured that the green’s leading scorer, Dadrian Collins, was mainly MIA. And I’ve cheaped out on tickets; for fifty extra bucks, I could have had a tournament pass for courtside. Better run down and pay the man some more.

Game 2: Victoria Vikings vs. Dalhousie Tigers

And the courtside tix are gone.

However, with intrepid timing and the benefit of a less-than-stellar crowd, scamming down to the floor level is easier than it is cheap. (Oh, pity the poor Americans: no doing that at March Madness.) What’s more, I have a great view of the cute group of school kids on the near baseline. I’m struck by the number of smiling, waving, dancing girls, probably in grade 5 or 6, with their hijabs all a-spangle. One has a paper crown perched on top of her headscarf, bearing the logo of Medieval Times, a local Toronto attraction. (Once upon a time, my bride was a singing waitress/”table wench” at mealtimes there, making some money in between dance gigs. Yes, I turned her tawdry life around by inserting myself into it. Ha!) Another, basketball painted on her cheek, never stops waving her thunderstix, just another high-energy Canadian schoolgirl enjoying a few hours away from class. I grinned at two boys wearing Muslim skullcaps up top, one sporting Old Navy across his chest, the other rocking a hoser’s lumberjack shirt in a bright green plaid. I’d have been proud to wear that thing in high school (though possibly not the skullcap).

Oh, and Dalhousie, the Atlantic champion after a series of upsets, is threatening Canada West winners Victoria after a quarter, leading 28-24. I am thoroughly bus-lagged after last night’s ridiculous adventure, so as I read my notes, I can make out most of it but there ain’t much there. The Tigers’ coach, I realized in reading the tourney previews, is an old rival. Rick Plato dropped 30-something on my tiny southern Ontario high school’s hopes of winning a regional title, oh, several decades and at least sixty pounds ago, in his case. (Yup, the important stuff, that’s what I’m here to give you.) Vic’s 6’10” first-team All-Canadian, Chris McLaughlin, seems a bit passive to me.

And I’m already sick of the corporate flogging and dead-ball “entertainment”.

Ryerson's Jahmal Jones, lightning guard and graduating All-Canadian, is the poster boy for the host Rams. They've worked hard to get the CIS some Tronna Love. Effective?

Ryerson’s Jahmal Jones, lightning guard and graduating All-Canadian, is the poster boy for the host Rams. They’ve worked hard to get the CIS some Tronna Love. Effective?

Point guard Marcus Tibbs is the engine for the Vikes, and he hits two big buckets late to help the Vikes catch and seemingly put away the pesky Tigers. However, he also makes a key turnover that leads to a huge three from shiny-headed Cedric Sanago that brings Dal within one. UVic travels, almost unforced except for last-minute pressure, and the Tigers’ undersized post — Kashrell Lawrence might be 6’4″, but he’s their leading scorer — muscles to an offensive rebound and sticks it back. Dal leads, twenty seconds to go. Tibbs penetrates, finds McLaughlin deep in the post, and he is absolutely tackled (excellent two arm wrap-up by the defender, if this is football). It should’ve been an intentional foul (two foul shots and retained possession, by the FIBA rules used in the CIS), but the officials compromised by calling it a shooting foul, though there’s no way the big guy could have even thought about shooting. McLaughlin? Dead calm, as he sinks both free throws with 6 seconds left. BIG, he is. Lawrence gets a pretty good look at a winning shot, but no luck. The Vikes escape, 57-56. (And due to the excitement of the game, you escape a more detailed summary. It’s Excuse Number Two: hard to take decent notes when the game’s on the line.)

Game 3: Ryerson Rams vs. Windsor Lancers

Now it’s night, the second doubleheader session, with the host Rams drawing a bigger (and more grownup) crowd. I got my second nap of the day between sessions, so I’m readier. Great energy — and the arena is rockin’, too — but hey, it must be kind of an empty barn on a regular home night against, say, Algoma. Ryerson’s Roy Rana (alliteration unintended but nearly inevitable) has taken the Rams from pitiable weakness — they used to be Algoma — to keeping some of the Toronto-area kids home for all the ways in which high-level CIS ball is often a better bet than the seductive lure of the NCAA scholarship, for all but the Wigginses of the Big Smoke basketball world.

It’s a tight one early, tied at 8, but the formerly derided “Rye High” is up 19-10 at quarter. Early in the 2nd, the Rams are off and running, Aaron Best and Jahmal Jones doing their thing. Windsor, meanwhile, just keeps chucking junk. Their Mitch Farrell tries to throw a fastbreak alley-oop, and tosses it off the backboard instead. Sit down, says coach Chris Oliver, but not emphatically (or often) enough for me. Suddenly it’s 28-13 after that Rams run, and the Lancers remains wild, though Khalid Abdel-Gabar strokes a couple of threes to get it back to 33-22. Poor Windsor execution: they waste so much of their 24-second possession (FIBA/CIS use the same shot-clock limit as the NBA, making for a fast game) just getting players into the much-used “horns” double high-post arrangement that they end up with no shot at all. Sheesh. 42-31 at half. They don’t look like a 2 seed, and they really aren’t. Though they knocked off Carleton in their odd home gym at Windsor, and surprised a tight Ottawa GeeGees team in the Ontario semifinals, they’re inconsistent, undisciplined, and little inclined to fundamentally sound defence. There’s real talent there, no doubt, and almost nobody beats UOttawa or CarletonU these days, let alone both in the same season. But.

Halftime show: Well, I don’t know if Rye (or anybody) can beat Carleton, but the RU ‘Dancepack’ has young women who can actually dance. The heavily “product”-ified Carleton “hair club for hotties” (not its real name) cheerleading crew can’t compete. Lots of former ballerinas here. (Does Ryerson have a Dance program? Since marrying a former bunhead, I notice these things.) The usual abrupt and thrust-y hiphop video stuff abounds, natch, but there are pirouettes and point-ish spins and a certain elegance as well. Howdy gives grudging and heavily-caveated approval. The girls perform now, more than just cheering for their boys, but still. It doesn’t smell like the equality of women and men to me.

I imagine that I can tell a lot from teams and how they warm up. (In the absence of much ability/time to actually scout teams as a coach, I’ve spent 20 years watching opponents warm up for pretty much my entire game-prep career. I can see things.) I don’t like what I see from the Lancers: casual, flippant, and the players don’t seem to connect with each other all that closely. (Anybody need a few grains of salt?)

Windsor’s Alex Campbell looks good to start the half, and Farrell looks awful. Just a chucker, my friend Dougie would say. They’re so undisciplined. Both Campbell and Farrell already have three fouls midway through the third. Campbell stays on, Farrell returns soon. Not much behind them, apparently. Speaking of undisciplined, Khadeem Greene, Ryerson’s rebounding ‘n’ defence big, launches from three? Yikes. 53-39 Rams with 4 left in 3rd.  Ah: I was wrong earlier (public address guy was right that Farrell only had two fouls), but Mitch grabs two more in short order, one a truly foolish reach on a man 30 feet from the hoop) to earn his 4th before the quarter. My personal LFP*. In contrast, Akika Peter-McNeilly, a quiet but efficient player for Rye, hits a fine, well-thought-out elbow jumper, last shot of the quarter. It’s 65-44, and it’s pretty much done. (* Least Favourite Player)

Yup, the fourth quarter was just an epilogue, and I didn’t learn much from it. I also found little to admire in Windsor, even when they took their Wilson Cup semifinal over UOttawa last weekend. (Well, not much other than their obvious athleticism and ability to get shots off.) They were fairly embarrassing in having their heart handed to them on a plate by Carleton the next night; their ticket to nationals had already been punched. The Lancers weren’t really in it tonight for much more than a quarter, and only some hot shooting from Abdel-Gabar and Campbell kept the score reasonable. Ryerson was never threatened, and the tournament organizers relax. Rams to the semis, at least, is essential to the gate receipts. POG: Abdel-Gebar and Peter-McNeilly.

Game 4: Ottawa GeeGees vs. Bishop’s Gaiters

One team wears “garnet ‘n’ grey” and claims that a “geegee” is a horse. The other team is named after walking boots, I believe. Not great moments in sports marketing, history be damned. UOttawa is going to blow out Bishop’s, I’d think, unless the Gaiters can exploit their obvious size.

The highlight of the singing of the anthem (besides the high heels and the forgetting to put on her dress over her panty hose) was the revelation that our national song is called “O Can-AY-da”. Bishop’s is the only team I’ve seen in quite a while starting three genuine forwards at forward, most teams playing three and even four guards. An interesting, kind of old-fashioned look, which maybe gaiters are, too. Bishop’s has its people here. Small university, big feeling? They are certainly the home crowd, though tiny Lennoxville, Quebec is farther away than Ottawa.

It’s 19-11 GeeGees at quarter, and UO hasn’t really gotten it going yet. Johnny Berhanemeskel, the gifted scorer who beat out Carleton’s smallest Scrubb for MVP honours, hasn’t scored and may not have even shot yet. Bishop’s guards (beyond Kyle Desmarais, who I think is mainly a scorer) don’t seem strong, so they have trouble getting it inside. The bigs look effective when they do, though.

“Coach Jimmeh”, Ottawa’s James Derouin, waited a LONG time to call a timeout. Unbelievable: Bishop’s just ran off, I think, twenty-two straight points. Derouin is a calm sideline presence, but maybe too much so; I felt the same thing this summer when he seemed to have little to say or change when his horses were being whipped by the Memphis Tigers on a northern summer trip. Bishop’s bigs, especially Mike Andrews, are looking unstoppable, their guards are feeling comfortable, and 6’11” Majid Naji hits a half-ending short fadeaway. They’ve got it going, and Derouin’s calm feels a touch overdone. Never discount the power of matchups! Down 7 at half, and confidence is through the purple roof. (Actually, it’s the old MLG roof still, painted a light grey. It’s Bishop’s that is purple. And maybe Coach Jimmeh’s face at halftime. They were number two all year, when they weren’t ranked first. This was not in their plan.) Derouin didn’t go long at half, though; they’re out doing their warmup thing at 9 minutes, quite the contrast to Reverend Smart’s halftime sermon. Gaiters return at 5 minutes. Count me fascinated.

(I keep going back to a Michael Grange story where he interviews the GeeGees’ boss. “You can’t out-Dave Dave,” he says of the challenge of competing with the famous intensity of Carleton’s Smart. “What’s next?” he asked himself when this year he finally beat the Ravens in a league game, after five years. Really? You admit that? His openness is refreshing, yet I’m not sure that’s a good sign.)

Full-court OU pressure to start the second half. Steal. Three. Another three. UOttawa is back in the lead after ONE minute, at 36-35. Nice adjustment, Jimmeh. But Bishop’s recovers, and point guard Mike L’Africain is a bit wild, and at 4 minutes it’s OU by 43-41. BUT. Johnny B, The Guy this year in CIS hoops, is struggling with his ballhandling, and has shot two ugly airballs. Yeesh. And L’Africain has forgotten where his team’s bread is buttered. (It’s on the Johnny side, if you’re scoring at home as Johnny B is not scoring here.) Their big, Gonthier-Dubue, has three fouls, I think. UO has gone back to individualism and dumbness. Bishop’s guards aren’t strong on O, but seem to be defending Johnny B especially well. And it’s a strong Bishop’s finish to the quarter, a frantic finish that you’d think would favour the racehorses of UO, but didn’t, and it’s a 5-point Gaiters lead again. Wow!

G-B is back, and gets an early bucket, but Bishop’s keeps pounding. Kurtis Caro, a reserve guard for Bishops’s who’s giving Berhanemeskel fits on D, is feeling confident on offence, too, taking on the UO guards. Jimmeh calls timeout, down 65-60. I don’t quite believe what I’m seeing. 71-67 on JB’s first three. Finally! And then another! But meanwhile, Bishop’s has had three uncontested treys of its own, and is still up 3 with 3:13 to go. L’Africain T’d up! (Was it just for slamming the ball in  frustrationbutnotcomplaint, or did he mouth off, too? He does that. Discipline!) With 2:24 to play, BU ball, up 3 with the T. 74-71. Johnny steals it and scores,  and one, but this near-90% shooter misses the free throw! Johnny again, a wild layup, MISSED! BU’s guards are cracking like eggs, but UO is not converting. Backcut basket for BU. JB fouled, misses the first. Double Wow. 76-74 Gaiters with 53 seconds left. BU turnover, couldn’t inbound, but Caro guarded (bumped?) the hell out of JB and he turned it over on a desperate pass. He’s exhausted. 20 seconds left. OU steals the ball again on a high post double-team, high-speed train Caleb Agada comes out with the ball. Caro steps in smartly and draws the ch – block?! (Terrible call in the heat and speed of the moment.) Agada makes ‘em both with seconds to play. Overtime. Triple Wow.

And they’ll survive. L’Africain hits a biggie, BU runs out of answers, and Agada goes to the line for the second time in OT. Up 5. Up 6. Up 7. Finally OU looks like a championship team again, but they don’t really deserve this, I feel. Not just the Agada block/charge, though that was huge and a clear “favourite” call. G-B punctuates it with a jam. 86-77 with under 2 to go, and BU won’t have enough answers. Guard play, finally, lets ‘em down. But — a three by Gaiter Jona Bermillo, then another, and with 1:09 to play, it’s 86-80. Quick take by Caro, playing out of his mind, and a putback by Andrews. Four. L’Africain is fouled, hits both. Still 6. And when the overtime GeeGee dust clears, it’s no dice for Bishop’s, and 91-85 is the subtitle of the UOttawa Great Escape. Bermillo, with a bag of second-half threes, is Bishop’s man o’ the match; Johnny B is embarrassed to be named the best man for UO, and tries to give his gift bag to Agada. I like this Johnny Man more and more, even if Phil is the better player…

And that, gentle readers, is my snapshot — well, it’s several pictures worth, so consider that! — of the opening round at the CIS Final 8. One blowout and three barnburners, and we’re ready for Saturday. Hope you’ll be watching if these things interest you. I’ll be here, and I’ll have more. (This is not a threat. Please do not barricade yourself, or disable your Internet.) Click for Part 2 (Consolation), Part 3 (Four Standing) or Part 4 (Ravenation Unbound).

Comments (4)

  1. Karl King

    Mike: he HAD me at “…lots of basketball”. LOL. Nice seeing you in Toronto, Jay, and I enjoyed watching the Ottawa vs. Ryerson game together. I still can’t get over how undisciplined Ryerson was in the final 10 minutes! I suppose it’s all elementary now considering [ed. note: CAPTAIN KING HAS A *HUGE* SPOILER ALERT COMING! I HAVEN’T WRITTEN THIS YET, SO HECK, GENTLE READER, YOU MAY BE BLINDLY GRASPING AT INVISIBLE STRAWS IN THE DARKEST OF ROOMS…] Carleton’s crushing victory over Ottawa.

  2. Steve Jarrett

    Whew! I was out of breath by the time I finished. That last game got you fired up! Uh-oh. This means I got winded reading about a sport. Better not try to play one!
    High five for getting me excited about a game that I didn’t know had happened. Bonus high five if you find the math error. Sorry, pedantry is hereditary.

  3. Michael Freeman

    Sorry, pal. You lost me at “…lots of basketball.”
    The passion and addiction, I understand only too well.

    • But Mr. Freeman, there were school children and meaning-of-sport and references to, well, some vaguely socio-cultural phenomena in there, too! ;-D I DO have to admire your clarity, though. Efficiency on the ‘Net!

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