The excitement around the month of August in the OUA and North America usually means one thing, the return of football.
Yet, it is also a time that sees a now yearly agreement between top-flight NCAA Division 1 basketball teams and OUA basketball teams competing in a series of exhibition games.
A battle of borders, a battle of different playing styles, a battle of conference prestige, call it what you will.
Some may point to the difference in operating budgets. Others will point out the difference in the talent pools to draw from. Most will say the level of talent between the two leagues is unfair. Don't tell that to any of the players.
Mike Rocca, a 5'10 guard entering his fifth year at the University of Windsor, is one of the those players. "It's more than just an exhibition. We have one chance this year to play a D1 school and make the most of it."
For athletes on both sides of the border, these games not only provide a tune-up to shake off the rust from their last competitive games and from the summer break, but it means much more. Each game is a measuring stick to see how your game has developed over the summer, and how you stack up against the best at the collegiate level.
"It gives us a chance to play against guys who are a lot bigger and stronger than we see in the OUA. Especially for our first-year guys, it's a great eye opener to understand how far we can go with our development both individually and as a team."
Rocca is among those examples. Since he entered the league in 2013-14, his game has continued to develop. This past season he averaged 16.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 4.5 APG, while shooting 40% from the field, including 37% from the three-point line and 80% from the charity stripe.
Perhaps most importantly, these games are a matter of pride, whether the players or coaches will admit it or not.
"Every game means a lot but these games in particular give us the opportunity to prove that there is talent in Canada. We want to prove that you don't need to leave Canada to become a great basketball player."
It has been over a decade now since perhaps the most prominent NCAA team ever made its way across the border. That team would be the 2006-2007 Florida Gators, who were coming off their first national championship. Led by future 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and 4x All-Star Al Horford, the Gators would waltz their way to a dominating 107-51 victory over the defending CIS national champion Brock Badgers. That same group would go on to receive the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and become the first team since Duke to repeat as national champions.
A lot has changed since then.
As the game of basketball has grown in Canada, so too has the success of Canadian and OUA university programs against top-tier NCAA competition. The most notable example of this are the Carleton Ravens, who have made it a habit in recent years to make what basketball experts would deem as impossible an ongoing reality.
In 2013, the Ravens, led by stars Philip Scrubb and Tyson Hinz, defeated the Wisconsin Badgers 95-82, a team that would advance to the Final Four that season. Even with the departure of the Scrubb brothers and Hinz, 2015 was no different, splitting a pair of games with Baylor, while also defeating Valpariso. This past Wednesday, the Ravens took out the Alabama Crimson Tide 84-71.
Yet, even with what some would some would consider significant victories, the attention is not always on the outcome of the game. For Ryerson head coach Roy Rana, the games mean something much bigger. "It's about providing our athletes with a special experience, an opportunity to build relationships with other student-athletes."
The man who led Canada's U19 men's basketball to its first gold medal back in July also notes how the success of OUA teams against D-1 schools is a testament to how strong the programs are in league, particularly at the league's showing at the national championship.
John Campbell, the head coach of the crosstown rival Toronto Varsity Blues, is of the same opinion. "Teams now enter these games with the goal of winning each one, not just competing. I think the community understands that U Sports basketball is at a high level."
This weekend, and for the rest of the month, OUA teams from across the province will be on the hard court with our southern neighbours. Even though it's the preseason, once the whistle blows and the ball tips off, it's game on.