Carleton Ravens take Syracuse Orange to overtime, offering umpteenth reminder of CIS hoops’ untapped potential

Neate Sager
The Eh Game

It did not feel extraordinary that the Carleton Ravens made the Syracuse Orange, a flippin' Final Four team a season ago, work overtime for a 69-65 exhibition win on Friday in front of 6,004 in the nation's capital.

Carleton, over the years, has forced Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals to overtime, lost a one-pointer to Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks and nearly won on the Villanova Wildcats' home floor. Earlier this week, playing with a 24-second shot clock at Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan's behest, it ran by the Big Ten's Badgers 95-82 ("we have never given up more than 90 points, that I can remember," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said afterward).

The Ravens led the 'Cuse for 36 minutes until wearing down in the face of the Orange's characteristic quickness and length — which you might remember from such March Madness runs as 2013's when they held five tournament foes to a piddly average of 48.8 points. There's no shame in that. Plenty of teams have their worst shooting nights against coach Jim Boeheim's Orange, who racked up 11 blocks on Friday — six by Rakeem Christmas — and harried two-time CIS player of the year Phil Scrubb into a 5-of-18, 14-point night.

The amount of hype the game received in Ottawa — Final Four team vs. nine-time CIS champions, Syracuse's 2-3 zone vs. Carleton's man-to-man defensive pressure, winningest Canadian program against Ontario's most-beloved U.S. college powerhouse, a matchup of ,Canadian national-team quality guards with Carleton's senior Scrubb and Syracuse frosh Tyler Ennis — might have been priming for some inevitable letdown. But that was only the case due to a prevailing post-game what now?. Carleton took Syracuse to the wire. Will it face a game remotely as tough before it hosts the CIS Final 8 next March in the same building?

While it's laid waste to Canadian competition while winning 99 of 101 CIS games during its present three-year reign, Carleton is first to point out it is merely several notches above the 10-ish university squads which can go toe-to-toe against D1 teams under the right circumstances. They do it without benefit of full scholarships, million-dollar TV contracts, 24/7 media coverage or fanatical student support on on U.S. college scale, . The question should be, how did that happen and how do you get the country to take notice?

"I don't think it's a whole different ballgame up here," acting Carleton coach Rob Smart, filling in while Dave Smart is with the Canadian men's national team in Puerto Rico, said after matching wits with Boeheim for 45 minutes. "I hope that the last few games [Carleton has played against D1 teams] have shown that. There are probably 10 to 15 teams in Canada that are really close. I think you'll see a breakthrough in the next five to 10 years where they're competing with the top level.

"People who know it are really passionate about the game and we love what we're doing. I think it's a matter of time before other people grab onto it and realize it's a really good product."

Perception is reality, though, and Canada is Canada. Carleton's CIS dominance, commingled with the acclaim it's gathered south of the border — "They're as tough a team defensively as anybody; their ball movement is as good as anybody's," Boeheim said Friday — has created an image of a one-team league. In between their August NCAA slate and the nationals, there are a lot of laughers against the OUA's lesser lights.

Meantime, a Canadian team beating a Division I mid-major is no longer a shock. The Alberta Golden Bears, Ottawa Gee-Gees and Windsor Lancers have all done it this month. (Ottawa has a tough lot in life, since it often has to take on a D1 team right after it received a scare or a beatdown from Carleton.)

"CIS basketball is getting better," Scrubb said. "I think Ryerson can compete with them, I think Ottawa U can compete with Syracuse."

NCAA move a no-go

The kneejerk response is that Carleton should be in the NCAA, which is a non-starter. (Why anyone would rush to join an archaic institution whose days are numbered is baffling.) Carleton athletic director Jennifer Brenning told Sun Media on Friday that the cost of NCAA Division II would be "very prohibitive." She could have also quipped there $5 million reasons Carleton's athletic program will stay put, referring to Carleton bringing back football.

Under Brenning and her predecessor Drew Love's leadership, Carleton has steadily demonstrated there is an audience for university hoops. Other programs are following suit. More week-to-week regular-season coverage would seem like a natural fit for CIS' media partner, Sportsnet, which is trying to attract the younger and more urbane sports consumer who has an open mind about university sports. But the production values have to meet what viewers are conditioned to seeing in the NCAA. Carleton or Ottawa rolling over a poor-country-cousin program in a campus gym ain't it.

Long past time to tier

"I've been preaching it for a long time that schools like Carleton and other top schools should form their own conference, like a Division I," Leo Rautins, the TV analyst and former national team coach, reiterating a popular idea in the Canadian basketball community, said Friday. "And they have the schools that want to recruit, that want to give scholarships, that kind of thing. Play against each other, have great crowds and really grow the game in this country.

"To me, this is a very doable thing and I find it hard to understand why it hasn't happened. But that's a decision the CIS and all the schools have to make. When you have a good product and there is so much interest being generated in basketball in this country, I think you could have a sustainable product if you do it."

Carleton, McGill, McMaster, Lakehead, Ottawa, Ryerson and Windsor stand out as programs in central Canada which could pull it off. Out west, Alberta, Calgary, Victoria and UBC pop to mind. There's also an opening for a non-football school to make a name for itself, like Carleton did in the early 2000s and Ryerson is doing presently. Play a stronger regular-season schedule, play the NCAA games within the regular timeframe of a basketball season.

Those Carleton losses to Louisville (2006) and Kansas (2008) were prologues to the Ravens eventually cutting down the nets in March. In truth, Carleton got exactly what it wanted this week. Running Wisconsin out of the gym served notice the rest of Canada is playing for the CIS silver medal and perhaps being the sympathetic subject of a hokey column in the country's largest newspaper. Losing a 15-point second-half lead against Syracuse means Carleton's core four of forward Tyson Hinz, wing Clinton Springer-Williams and Phil and Thomas Scrubb has the burn of being brutalized on the boards and forced into a bad shots by the 'Cuse. They actually retrieved more of their misses than Syracuse did in the first half before the Orange awakened.

"That's the best example we'll ever get about how to rebound," said Hinz, who had 16 points and 13 boards on Friday. "It's pretty easy to be motivated after a game like this. Whereas if you win, it takes a real winner to get motivated again."

Carleton preaches the idea of practising scared in order to be loose come tip-off. Syracuse, which held them 10-of-40 from three-point land, put a little fear back into their system.

"We learned about the intensity with which you have to make shots," Rob Smart said. "When you're relaxed, it's not the same as in a game. Some of those Syracuse guys closing out, they're 6-foot-9, flying at you 12 feet high. You have to translate that into how you practise."

"We played them tough for a while, it's great," Smart added. "We're a little scared going in ... it feels good that we did that for a good chunk of the game."

There's not much else to say, other than to be politically correct about playing in a league where there will be a lot of 30- and 40-point wins.

"Paper doesn't mean much," Hinz said. "You have to treat every game like you're playing Syracuse."

It isn't the case, though. It might yet be, though.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.