Philip Scrubb surveys the defense at the 2015 Final 8 - Photo Paul S. Hendren

Philip Scrubb surveys the defense at the 2015 Final 8 – Photo Paul S. Hendren

Words and Images: Paul S. Hendren for heinnews

Toronto (heinnews) – High flyer Aaron Best had options. During his final season at the basketball factory known as Eastern Commerce Collegiate, Best was heavily recruited to pursue the sport beyond high school. The native of suburban Toronto, who has just completed his fourth season of university basketball, chose Toronto’s Ryerson University over several recognized Division One programs Stateside.

Cameron Smythe, who stands just shy of seven feet tall, uprooted from East Vancouver to accept an offer to play several thousand kilometers from home for Canadian powerhouse Carleton Ravens in the nation’s capital. Smythe and his imposing frame also had options south of the forty ninth after four years at Sir Charles Tupper High School in Vancouver followed by a year at Cushing Academy in Massachusetts.

Eight university programs in Canada assembled in Canada’s largest city for several days of championship basketball. The Final 8 was a chance for players like Best and Smythe to strut their talents in the hub of Canada’s media capital – an opportunity for Canadian-based student athletes to demonstrate that their decision of staying local was more than just a taste of home cooking.

Long gone are the times when Canadian university basketball was just an afterthought. More and more skilled players have selected Canadian schools as a place to develop their basketball talents.

Ryerson Athletic Director Ivan Joseph has experienced high performance sport on both sides of the border. He was part of a renaissance for sport with Graceland University, a modest but successful NAIA school in Iowa.

Although Joseph oversees Ryerson’s entire sports program, he has kept a close eye of the Rams’ basketball team and its meteoric rise up the rankings under head coach Roy Rana. Joseph firmly believes that the gap is closing between Canadian and American university basketball programs despite the allure of scholarships south of the border.

The main difference between Canadian student athletes to their American counterparts is that Canadian schools, under the guise of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), don’t offer full athletic scholarships.

Joseph sees a new-found commitment in Canadian schools to full-time coaching, the likes of Roy Rana at Ryerson or Dave Smart at Carleton.

“It’s really not about the full scholarships that everybody thinks of. It’s the other things like the support systems that are in place like strength and conditioning coaches, academic support services, the psychologist – not to mention a year round commitment to the athlete,” Joseph outlined of the merits of staying close to home.

“Now you see a Canadian player highly trained and developed.”

Joseph is certain that many Canadian universities are now on par with their American counterparts but he warns that the gap between the elite basketball programs like Duke or Kentucky to what is offered here in Canada is still wide.

“We take all American schools and lump them into one, not remembering that there is the NAIA, Division 2 and Division 3,” he said when looking at NCAA basketball holistically.

“I think we have the coaching, the infrastructure, the commitment to quality full-time training to compete with most American schools accept for maybe the NCAA Division 1 top ten programs.”

The 2015 version of the Men’s Basketball Final 8s was the first time that the tournament was hosted in Toronto. Of greater significance, however, was that the games were played under the roof of one of Canada’s most iconic sport’s shrines.

You have to give it to Ottawa Gee Gees fans - they do have some creativity. Photo Paul S. Hendren

You have to give it to Ottawa Gee Gees fans – they do have some creativity. Photo Paul S. Hendren

The Mattamy Athletic Centre, the centerpiece of Ryerson’s expanding sports program, is actually Maple Leaf Gardens reincarnated. The third level of this retro-fitted multi-sport facility, under the façade of the legendary hockey arena, is a splendid hockey/basketball venue able to house several thousand fans.

The 2015 version of the Final 8 tournament pitted eight elite teams from four Athletic Conferences representing 11,000 student athletes across Canada.  Rams, Gators, Tigers, Ravens, Huskies, Vikings, Gee Gees and Lancers all migrated to Toronto for four days of intense competition under some new found scrutiny by the national media. For the participants it was a grueling test of resolve as many teams played three games in four days.

At the end of the tournament, the Carleton Ravens reigned supreme with a crushing defeat of cross-town rivals University of Ottawa Gee Gees before a standing room only crowd. Although Ottawa was advertised to present Carleton with a stiff test, the Ravens completely manhandled a team that was ranked nationally just behind them all season. It was Carleton’s fifth consecutive national university basketball title, and their 11th in the last 13 years.

The Ravens were led by two brothers who have made the Ottawa school home over the past five years. Philip and Thomas Scrubb, who are two of the undisputed leaders at Carlrton, have now exhausted their university eligibility and will be looking for professional basketball opportunities abroad after completing their respective university degrees.

They will follow alumni Aaron Doornekamp (Skyliners Frankfurt), Tyson Hinz (Zwolle), Osvaldo Jeanty (last at Mittedeutscher BC) and Ryan Bell (Espoon Honka) in the professional ranks.  Philip Scrubb was selected tournament MVP while older brother Thomas garnished best defensive player over the past CIS campaign.

Both brothers have been on the radar of Canadian senior head coach Jay Triano, who will be looking to invite both to the Pan Am Games with basketball to be hosted at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Center.

Both Scrubb brothers will be in good company as it is rumored that NBA stars  Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Olnyk, Tyler Ennis, Triston Thompson and Andrew Nicholson could be suiting up for the Canadian team.

But the architect of Carleton’s success has been head coach Dave Smart.

After arriving at the Ravens’ nest in Ottawa in 1999, the 48-year old head coach has guided his school to eleven national championships in 13 years. Along the journey he has been selected national ‘Coach of the Year’ eight times.

While legendary NCAA head coach Rick Patino is known for his dapper attire and flashy presentation, Smart is the polar opposite. But don’t let the wrinkled grey suit and loose tie fool you. There is no coach more passionate or dedicated to detail than Smart. Even in the championship game, with his team leading by over 30 points, he continued to bark at the referees or players who missed assignments.

Dave Smart directs his Carleton players during the 2015 Final 8 - Photo Paul S. Hendren

Dave Smart directs his Carleton players during the 2015 Final 8 – Photo Paul S. Hendren

For Cameron Smythe, his coach “does it all”.

“He brings a very high basketball I.Q. as well as an intense passion for the game,” offered Smythe, who chose Carleton over several other programs because of the Smart’s reputation.  “Every day he brings it and does a lot on and off the court for his guys,” he said.

Smart’s coaching ability has not gone unnoticed by Canada Basketball as he is a significant member of Jay Triano’s coaching staff.  His loyalty to Carleton, however, is unyielding as he has never pursued a coaching position in the States even though the offers have been on the table.

Carleton regularly defeats NCAA Division 1 schools that are touring Canada during their pre-seasons with the Ravens notching victories over Vermont, Illinois-Chicago and Memphis twice this past summer

It appears that Smart, the Carleton Ravens and many other Canadian university basketball programs across Canada’s vast sporting landscape are inspired to give talented student-athletes some northern exposure.

(Paul Hendren , who resides in Toronto, is an internationally recognized sports journalist , basketball enthusiast and a Director within FIRE Basketball Association)

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