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.

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Need One Ticket

And on nights like the last one, I’m also smack-tackled by the need for a basketball team to coach. The hot ticket in Ottawa Saturday was for the OUA East championship game between the hometown Carleton Ravens and their cross-town antagonists, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. I’d struck out Wednesday when the tickets sold out in a couple of hours, so I lined up early for standing room seats. However, the “Need One” sign that I’d artfully duct-taped to my sleeve got me pretty close to my usual seat, and next to an Ottawa U co-ed who’d hoped for a more interesting date, I’m sure. We were right behind the Ravens’ bench, where I can watch Coach Dave Smart’s perpetual agony at the imperfections of his players (and of the officials, who had a tough game).

It’s great to see that kind of feverish local demand for what the Murricans call “college basketball”, in a game to decide who’d go to the Last Dance, the Canuck version of March Madness. (Mind you, ticket scarcity comes easier when the Ravens’ Nest seats fewer than 2000 people.) Ottawa U finally beat the Ravens in the Smart Era for the first time last year, and this season won both games in tight struggles, the first one before a CIS record crowd of nearly 10,000 at Scotiabank Place. (And yes, I know, the Carolina Tar Heels get more than that for their first open practice of the season. That’s a different world down there.) But the brutally efficient Ravens had still managed first place by being more consistent than the mercurial Gee-Gees; for them, beating Carleton is everything.

It looked like Carleton was going to run off and hide early, but two tight block/charge calls on successive possessions both went against Ravens star Aaron Doornekamp, leaving him with a pair of fouls and causing a potential five-point swing. From there, the Gee-Gees went on an absurd run to take a three-point halftime lead. It was wild, and it got wilder. Neither team shot well, and there were incredible sequences of defensive intensity and offensive nervousness that resulted in almost comically bad misses. The players know each other so well that Doornekamp and Osvaldo Jeanty, Canada’s reigning Player of the Year, were both in check. Similarly, the Gee-Gees silky sophomore, Josh Gibson-Bascombe, had to work very hard for his shots, though he hit several big-time threes.

The biggest shot of the game broke the second half 46-46 tie that had seemed to go on forever, and it came from an unexpected source. With the shot clock running down, substitute defensive stopper Rob Saunders nailed a tough jumper off the dribble, and the Ravens never trailed again. (Saunders is an electrical engineering student, another thing you don’t see among the NCAA Division 1 heavyweights.) The man he replaced, Stu Turnbull, looks more like a light-heavyweight boxer than a basketball player, but muscled his way to 17 points to lead the four-time champion Ravens to the win. And now Carleton goes for its fifth consecutive national title in the Final 8 at Halifax, one of the great (and under-reported) stories in Canadian sport.

Consider these ridiculous facts about the Ravens’ captain, Jeanty: he told his coach as a freshman that his goal was to win five CIS championships – only one remains; his regular season and playoff record in those four-plus years is now 130-8, a winning ratio over 95% (!); he has been the championship game MVP in all four that he has played. Meanwhile, NOT SO SMART! the Gee-Gees fans chanted, but Coach Dave has put together, at a university with no outstanding tradition of basketball excellence, one of the most powerful and unlikely dynasties we’ve ever seen.

I have such admiration for what they do, but I can’t get into the yelling and chanting. (And it was LOUD.) I’m too busy pretending to coach. I’m breaking down Turnbull’s jumpshot during the pre-game. I mutter about Gibson-Bascombe’s decision-making, and tip my hat to his smooth and confident game (and wonder how Ottawa U pried him out of Toronto, and away from a U.S. full-ride scholarship, which must have been available to him). Finish strong, I plead with Doornekamp, who apparently doesn’t hear me. What’s worse, these tired old bones couldn’t sleep afterwards because this fevered old brain is in full game-analysis mode, and planning practices for a non-existent team. Drives me nuts. Love this time of year.