CIS Championship Sunday

Game 9 (Consolation Final): UBC v. Concordia.  Now, they pay attention to winning streaks in RavensLand, where I live, as witness Carleton Athletics’ chronicling of an (admittedly incredible) 87-game winning streak in league and playoff action, which excluded a couple of Canadian losses and several to NCAA schools in pre-season action. (I believe that the gods of basketball struck them down when they went for number 88 last season, which would have tied the immortal streak of the “Walton Gang”, the early-70s UCLA Bruins. That streak had no exceptions or provisos, nothing but wins.) I bring this up to point out that Carleton’s current winning streak at Nationals, an absurd 18 games, includes their consolation-side wins in the last Halifax appearance in which they did NOT win the big trophy. I wasn’t that aware of Carleton basketball then, although I wondered about this Dave Smart character, a young guy I’d met at basketball camps, a fine and rather funky player who was going back to Queen’s to complete his last season of eligibility before turning to his burning ambition to coach. I was curious to know if he’d be any good on the sidelines. HA! When his Ravens, in ’01, lost in the opening round at Nationals, I have no doubt that they took the consolation games with the utmost seriousness. Shoot, practice scrimmages at Carleton look like life-and-death struggles.

But this year, the nation’s number 1 and number 2 seeds ended the tournament playing for very few of the marbles. It certainly looked that way, too, especially for the UBC Thunderbirds. I’m not saying they didn’t TRY, for goodness’ sake, but, as the hockey folks say, they didn’t play with desperation. (The Ravens, meanwhile, more than any team I’ve ever paid attention to, come close to treating each game, each possession, as a matter of great urgency and team pride.) The ‘Birds’ Casey Archibald was sweet to watch, once again, at least when he had the ball in his hands, and finished with 89 points in the tournament. He doesn’t rebound or defend with a lot of energy, and Kevin Hanson and his staff don’t seem to require it of him. And so Patrick Perrotte, Benjamin Sormonte and the Buckley brothers took the Consolation title for Concordia. It just meant more to them, and this seemed clear. Concordia has an ever-deepening pool of Montreal basketball talent to mine, and though Perrotte and Sormonte are through, maybe these Nationals wins do matter to the future of Stingers basketball. I think Coach Smart would say that “meaningless” consolation wins in ’01 helped prepare for the Raven Conquests of ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06…

Game 10 (The CIS Championship, live on TSN, not that the rest of the tournament got much media attention…): Carleton v. Brandon. Yes, readers, you know the result: …AND ’07! Brandon, a prairie school with a long (and mainly distinguished?) tradition of attracting American ballplayers to the middle of Manitoba, was good. They are very quick and skilled, but I didn’t believe they could gut out the kind of championship intensity that I knew Carleton would bring. But they did, and they never cracked. Like UBC, they are very talented, starting a 6’9” basketball vagabond from Las Vegas and three terrific athletes from Quebec, especially the guard tandem of Yul Michel and Dany Charlery, both from Montreal. (They also start a Brandon boy, Chad Jacobsen. He was superb, and hit one of the gutsier shots you’ll ever see to keep Brandon in it at the end. He must’ve grown up worshipping the great teams of the Jerry Hemmings era, when Coach H brought four CIS titles to the Plains.)

If you watched on TSN, you saw what I thought was a hokey, cliché-ridden and rather stiff you been disrespected all year! pre-game speech from their young coach, Barnaby Craddock. But maybe this stuff still works. Despite being held to 23 points fewer than their previous season low, the fastbreak-happy Bobcats were tough as nails against Carleton. Their mental resilience was remarkable, because they are not used to playing the game this way. And for the first time, the Ravens’ two-time CIS Player of the Year, Osvaldo Jeanty, played only a solid game in the national final, where he had been the Player of the Game in each of his previous four appearances. Mind you, although his shooting was off, he still fired 15, defended like a madman, and hit a circus shot to (nearly) seal the game. But this time, it was junior Aaron Doornekamp, the fourth of Smart’s nephews to star for him, who was the tournament and championship game MVP. A finesse forward, he rebounded furiously and his two late threes were the killer strokes in the final 52-49 slugfest over the Bobcats.

But don’t look now, Carleton-haters – and there are more than a few in CIS circles – but the Ravens did it again AND they return 11 of the top 12 guys in their rotation, most of them for two or more seasons. They were a young squad this year; their serious opponents here will all lose several fifth-year contributors. And who knows what Smart’s high school recruiting class will look like? Certainly there are many young star athletes that won’t go to Carleton because of the lofty and incessant demands of playing for Dave Smart, but kids like to win. The best (and smartest) young players also can’t ignore that he’s with the Canadian national team as its top assistant coach. What will happen to Ravens’ opponents if they actually get a dominating post player? Or the creative point guard they’ve played without for the last two national championships?

But they also won’t have Osvaldo Jeanty any more, and that is a leadership gap that won’t be filled anytime soon. A basketball lifer close to the Carleton program has it right: “Os is far from the best basketball player I’ve watched in the CIS, but he might be the greatest one.” Along, perhaps, with McMaster’s great point guard, Steve Maga, Jeanty has fewer of the natural gifts that hoops junkies look for than any other national Player of the Year, let alone other two-time winners. He is not tall or long. He is not especially fast. He does not leap well, and has at best only reasonable quickness. What he does have are a fabulous work ethic, a phenomenal ability to accept coaching, superb hands, and what John Wooden put at the top of his famous Pyramid of Success: Competitive Greatness. Real love of a hard battle. And the will not only to win – and he has it in spades – but the will to prepare to win. I’m anxious to see how much the talented Mr. Doornekamp has absorbed from the captain in this last regard. He clearly has talent, and he clearly has the fire.

Pay attention, people. There’s something awfully special brewing in CIS basketball, has been for a good stretch, and most of the sporting public is missing a good story.

CIS Halifax: Day 2

This is stale-dated, unfortunately; I wasn’t able to post directly from Halifax, but here are my notes on Day 2 (Saturday’s semifinal play) of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s basketball championships.

Games 5 & 6 (Consolation Semifinals): The tournament’s top two seeds, Concordia and BC, overcame their first-round disappointments to advance on the Consolation side of the draw. Some consolation. It’s another distinguishing feature of the Canuck national final that there even IS a chance for first-round losers to play again; it is universally win-or-go-home in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, where even the third-place game in the Final Four was done away with 35 years ago. It’s hard for CIS athletes – especially those who genuinely believed that they were in the championship hunt – to commit mentally to the consolation round, but the competitive jones kicks in sooner or later as long as the game doesn’t get away from them early. For the administrators, it is simpler: Look, if we’re travelling all that way, we have to get at least two games. It’s money, but I’m not sure it makes even economic sense to play a game that nobody much wants to play or watch. At development levels, of course there has to be the chance to play the extra games, but with elite athletes? I don’t see the point, really. I must be missing something.

That having been said, top-seed Concordia pulled away from a lethargic Windsor team that was never really in it. Down 20 midway through the first period, the Lancers made a minor comeback in the second but never made it interesting. Yesterday’s doubts were confirmed: Windsor’s Wilson Cup home-court win over Carleton, which had little bearing on seeding for the Final 8, was their national championship, emotionally. The Stingers’ Patrick Perrotte, after a tough game one, was dominant inside against the Lancers. He’s an odd-looking player, a “Mister 5 by 5” who plays the post at a wide-bodied 6’1”. You’d never pick him out of a police lineup as a basketball player – he looks more like the guy who owns (and is the bouncer for) the slightly seedy bar downtown – but he’s powerful, skilled, very intelligent and has remarkably nimble feet for a man of his heft. Perrotte’s running mate, Benjamin Sormonte, also shot the lights out.

In the second consolation game, a casual UBC team allowed an Acadia club, scarlet from their 48-point spanking by Carleton the night before, to recover some pride. It seemed inevitable, though, that the Thunderbirds — maybe the most talented crew in the country — came back from a large early deficit to win fairly comfortably. Casey Archibald was a revelation, seemingly able to dial up a graceful offensive sally whenever it was needed. What a beautiful jumpshot. “How is this guy not on the national team?” was a conversation running through my section; he wouldn’t dunk on international competition as he does here, but he’s a 6’4″ guard who can shoot the long bomb and the pull-up mid-range shot. At this level, he takes over when he feels like it, and notched another 30-point effort. At the same time, the other thread running through the knowledgeable fans in the Carleton section was that he “couldn’t play for us”. Too soft? Not committed to defence? I’m not sure what was meant by that, other than Ravens Pride, but it was great to see him play after all that I’ve read. He’s the real deal, and what a great career, despite the T-Birds’ chronic failures at the Nationals.

Game 7 (Championship Semifinal): Brandon v. Saint Mary’s. After the Huskies upset Concordia in the opener, this game was exhibit B of the competitive advantage that the small Atlantic University Sport conference has had by virtue of hosting the Nationals for the past 24 years. Three times, for example, their conference runner-up has qualified as the 8th-seeded  host school and knocked off the tournament number one in the first round. It’s home cooking, baby, though not of the refereeing variety, at least not directly. But they’ve played at the Metro Centre frequently, which is a very different venue from the campus gyms that nearly all CIS games are played in, and Halifax comes out in force to yell for the Maritime teams. Here, the Huskies were decidedly outmanned against the Bobcats, but Brandon failed to put the finish on their 17-point second-half lead, and the loud crowd helped Saint Mary’s to come within three in a raucous run to the buzzer. When only one Atlantic school gets an automatic bid to Nationals over the next three years — they’re moving to Ottawa after their long Halifax engagement — things will be very different for the east-coast schools. Can AUS teams have anywhere near the success they’ve had during the Halifax years? One thing they won’t have: scoreboard “rally monkeys” bouncing and imploring the crowd to MAKE NOISE for Saint Mary’s. It clearly rattled the Bobcats, and gave renewed energy to a very tired group of Huskies.

Game 8 (Championship Semifinal): Ottawa v. Carleton. Round Four of the “Canal War” between these Capital rivals had the Carleton fans worried. OU gets up for the Ravens as they do for nobody else, and they had won two of the three tense struggles they’d had. I guessed that this would not be the case when it came to the Nationals, and my prediction of a relatively easy 13-point Carleton win suffered only from being too tentative. Carleton ground down a very game Ottawa team, which knew early in the second half that there were no more miracles in their toolkit. The Ravens were nearly as dominant, at times, as they had been in crushing Acadia in the first round. The lead got near 30, and the final spread was a startling 22 points. For those of you counting these things, that made for a 70-point margin of victory in Carleton’s first two games. If people wanted to see them go down, last year was the time to get them, when second team All-Canadian Aaron Doornekamp was out with a broken ankle. Astonishingly, the Ravens won anyway last year, and I can’t see anybody getting them now. They are SO hard to play against.