By Wayne Kondro
Special to CIS
It is, of course, an axiom that every coach is convinced at the start of a season that their team has one foot on a banana peel and the other on glare ice.
Their posts couldn't guard their grandmothers. Their guards need a compass. The bench is lost in the thickest of fogs. Their teams are so bad they couldn't beat an omelet with a whisk, and the situation so sad the coach is contemplating psychotherapy.
But it would entirely disingenuous for the coaches in Ontario University Athletics, which has become the nation's pre-eminent men's basketball conference, to make that case, what with as many as eight teams challenging for spots in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Top Ten rankings and still a few others knocking on the door.
There's no question that the OUA "is stronger and deeper," says Western Mustangs coach Brad Campbell. "When your own conference raises the bar, you have to adapt to survive."
As significantly, the also-rans are no longer bottom feeders. As Queen's coach Stephan Barrie notes, "there's no longer any 'weak' teams."
That's saying something given that none of the OUA's four representatives in last year's CIS tournament lost to a team from another conference, and that no less than seven of its 10 first-team all-stars have graduated. So too have four off the second team, while a fifth transferred.
It's a reflection of hyper-recruiting by a new generation of young, driven coaches, as well as the explosive growth of the game within the province, which has created a deeper pool of talent, and the fact that the OUA is becoming more attractive to players from Europe, the States and even other parts of Canada. "That never used to happen," notes Laurier coach Peter Campbell.
The general consensus among the coaches is that the uOttawa Gee-Gees have the weapons to become the 'dominant' team in the league, and thus, a legitimate shot at capturing the school's first national title when CIS convenes in Vancouver next March to decide its 54th champion.
Although they've graduated Mike Moser Trophy winner Johnny Berhanemeskel, the Gee-Gees have a pair of All-Canadian candidates in wing Caleb Agada, who toiled for the FISU team that finished 7th in Gwangju, South Korea, and crafty fifth-year point guard Mike L'Africain. They also have perhaps the nation's deepest front-court rotation in McMaster transfer Nate McCarthy, Carleton transfer Brody Maracle, as well as long and lanky vets Vikas Gill and Matt Plunkett, both of whom can shoot the trey. Starting in the off-guard spot is athletic sophomore Brandon Robinson, while there cannot be a better sixth-man in the country than hard-nosed defender Mehdi Tihani.
The Gee-Gees are hungry, having come "so close" to a crown in the past three campaigns (CIS silver medals in 2014 and 2015, and a bronze in 2013), says coach James Derouin. "We've won pretty much everything else that there is to win. But one of the challenges is we gotta remember we gotta get there again."
Meanwhile, over at archrival Carleton, the brothers Scrubb are playing Euro-ball, while swingman Victor Raso graduated and coach Dave Smart is on a professional development tour, visiting counterparts at American power programs to absorb tips on how to improve the program. Starting post Jean-Emmanuel Jean-Pierre, meanwhile, says he's transferring to either uOttawa or Ryerson.
A recipe for a stint in the cellar?
Don't bet on it. Gunner Connor Wood, Gavin Resch, Guillaume Payen-Boucard and 6-11 post Cameron Smythe return, while the Ravens reload with the likes of Cleveland State transfer point guard Kaza Kajami-Keane and York transfer Ryan Ejim, the long and athletic younger brother of Canadian national team player Melvin Ejim. And that doesn't even begin to tap that seemingly bottomless bench.
"We're a little more athletic probably than we have been ever," says interim coach Rob Smart. The key to success will be "just playing hard so that athleticism actually shows."
Absolutely, no one in the league doubts that Brock can put the ball in the hole. The knock on the Badgers last season, was whether they recoiled from playing any manner of defense because pushing teams deep into the shot clock just meant that much longer til they regained possession of the ball. As coach Charles Kissi notes, "the one thing we can do is score. We just have to figure out how to get some stops. Last year, we were at the bottom of the league in defense and rebounding."
The Badgers had scoreboard tumblers clicking once again in the preseason after returning from a tour of Sweden and ripping off wins over the likes of Ryerson and Windsor. Among a seemingly infinite array of top gunners are Dani Elgadi, Johneil Simpson, Laurentian transfer Ryan Bennett, Matt Marshall, Tyler Brown and Zachary Angelini.
Ryerson graduated all-star Jahmal Jones, Jordan Gauthier and Bjorn Michaelsen, while Kadeem Green will sit out the year to focus on his studies. Meanwhile, coach Roy Rana will take a one-year sabbatical.
But forget any notion that the Rams are in rebuilding mode. Interim coach Patrick Tatham returns second-team all-star point guard Adika Peter-McNeilly and first-teamer Aaron Best, both of whom toiled for the FISU team. Slotting into the off-guard spot is athletic Tennessee Tech transfer Ammanuel Diressa, while veterans Juwan Ogunnaike-Grannum and Adam Voll will man the blocks. Off the bench comes such talent as Roshane Roberts, an OUA all-rookie selection at Queen's in 2013, as well as wings Filip Vujadinovic and John-Victor Mukama.
"We should be pretty good. We just gotta get everybody on the same page," says Tatham. "We have more athleticism."
Now, there's a frightening thought.
McMaster re-tools around athletic 6-5 wing Leon Alexander and point guard Aaron Redpath, what with Taylor Black's graduation and Joe Rocca's transfer to Carleton. Joining them in the starting line-up are Travon McNeil, Troy Joseph and opportunistic scorer Connor Gilmore. The first options off the bench are OUA all-rookie selection David McCulloch and 6-2 veteran Adam Presutti.
Playing Redpath at the point "allows us to present more of a defensive/versatile kind of line-up that can handle situations different than we have in the past," Marauders coach Amos Connolly, adding that "veteran leadership" will ultimately determine McMaster's fate.
Is Alexander ready to become the man?
"If the first games have shown anything, I would say yes," Connolly says.
The Western Mustangs return a horse in first-team all-star Greg Morrow, who finished 2nd in the league in scoring (21.8 ppg) and 11th in rebounding (7.1 rpg). "He's a very legitimate All-Canadian candidate if he keeps on rolling," Campbell says.
Jedson Tavernier and Alex Coote have been shooting the lights out from the arc in the preseason. Point guard Tom Filgiano is an effective ball distributor, while forward Peter Scholtes returns to the Western roster after a year's absence. Forward Anthony Spiridis is expected to quickly work his way back into the starting rotation after recovering from a cracked thumb. Others in the shuffle will include Eric McDonald, after a year off recovering from ankle surgery, and 6-9 post Alex Otzyv, after a year in a Pennsylvania prep school.
In short, Western is big and deep. Ride on, Mustangs.
Perhaps it's something about making the OUA Final Four. Windsor coach Chris Oliver became the third of the four coaches who accomplished the task last year to take a year's sabbatical, leaving interim coach Ryan Steer with the headache of adjusting to life without 6-9 post Evan Matthew and 6-5 all-star forward Rotimi Osuntola Jr.
But second-team all-star Mitch Farrell returns, though he's recovering from a shoulder injury, as do guards Mike Rocca and Alex Campbell. Rookie guard Isiah Osborne will step into starting rotation, along with 6-4 reserve Marko Kovic. The post will feature a rotation of Tyler Persaud, freshman Randy Oriaki or Kahame Msiska, depending on match-ups.
"It's the first time in probably 10 years that we don't have a true post," says Steer. "When we have success, it's based on our team rebounding. Without having that guy in the middle to grab 10 rebounds, we need to rebound from all five positions."
Queen's is a darkhorse that many may overlook. Barrie has been quietly collecting his kind of kids and now that he's in his fifth year, it's his roster, complete with an array of options. Rail-thin 6-11 post Mike Shoveller has added a few pounds and is beginning to produce in the blocks. Sukhpreet Singh has proven a threat at off-guard since being moved from the point, while Sammy Ayisi is setting up the offence. Mark Paclibar will provide depth in the backcourt, once his broken elbow is mended. Either Tanner Graham or rookie Vince Wood will man the wing, while 6-7 Ryall Stroud, or any number of other bigs, will play power forward.
It's a much more cohesive, versatile and "self-driven" unit, says the ever-civil Barre. "We're bigger than we have been and we play bigger, so we run some different stuff. The ball goes inside a lot more than it has in the past because we have several guys who score in the post."
York appears to have length, athleticism and considerable quickness, with a battery of tweeners who can attack off the dribble. Forward Nathan Culbreath is relentless on the glass. University of New Orleans transfer Tommy Hobbs will man the wing, while fiery Shane Reader, who toiled last year in the American junior college ranks for Palm Beach State in Florida, will play the point. In the mix for the other two spots are redshirt Jayden Frederick, as well as veterans Raheem Isaac, Daniel Tulloch and Nana Adu-Poku.
"When we play well, we can compete with anybody in the country," says Lions coach Tom Oliveri. "But we haven't put it together yet. Some of these guys haven't played for two years. So it takes time, their rotation, their feel, their decision-making."
Similarly, teams discount Laurier and wily coach Peter Campbell at their peril. The Golden Hawks return second-team all-star guard Will Coulthard, as well as starters Luke Allin, an OUA all-rookie selection, and gunner Chuder Teny. Reserve Matt Chesson steps into the line-up, as does rookie point guard Simon Mikre. Off the bench comes such instant offence as Owen Coulthard.
By definition, rookie playmakers can alternatively look spectacular or frightening, on consecutive possessions. Yet, Campbell is enthused. "Because of him, we're playing so much better. We're moving the ball. We're running the floor. Guys are getting open and they're getting shots."
Projected starting forward Darcy Watt blew out his knee during preseason at Laurentian, leaving Voyageurs coach with a line-up comprised of striplings fresh out of high school or rarely-used reserves, and once again playing primarily perimeter basketball. Gunners Ryan Bennett and 2nd-team all-star Tychon Carter-Newman bailed for Brock and McGill, respectively, but point guard David Aromolaran returns, as does 6-2 forward Sam Hirst. Reserves Joseph Sykes and Nick Simon step into the line-up, along with Carleton transfer Anthony Iacoe. Other options included Colombian product Alexander Henry-Iriarte.
"We can get good looks," says Swords. "But we gotta be able to make them." The Voyageurs have proven they can do that, hitting 16 treys in one outing. "It's a rough year to be young. ... Hopefully, everyone thinks we're terrible again and we'll surprise some of them." Not likely. It's no secret that Swords' troops improve significantly as the year progresses.
Over at "Changing Lives, Improving Life University," otherwise known as Guelph, coach Chris O'Rourke hopes point guard Daniel Dooley will soon recover from a preseason shoulder injury and stabilize a starting line-up which should also feature 6-7 banger Martin Popiel and Palestinian national team forward Ahmed Haroon and either Drew Walford, Taylor Boers, Jonathan Wallace or Jack Beatty. "We gotta be more consistent on defense. And we have to be that kind of team that has very balanced scoring," O'Rourke says.
The Varsity Blues are expected to start 2nd-team all-star Devin Johnson, along with some combination of OUA all-rookie selection Sage Usher, 6-10 Grand Canyon University transfer Miroslav Jaksic, rookie Swedish power forward Daniel Johansson and Massachusetts point guard Devon Williams in coach John Campbell's third year at the Toronto helm. "We gotta find a way to take care of the basketball," says Campbell.
Lakehead is settling on a starting rotation featuring Toronto transfer Nick Burke at the point, Bacarius Dinkins, off-guard Henry Tan, Alexandre Robichaud and rookie Quincy Johnson. "We're not going to outscore teams, that's for sure," says Thunderwolves coach Manny Furtado. "We're going to have play low-scoring-type-defence, try and take main guys away and force some other guys to do some other things that they can't do."
With Greg Francis bolting back to Basketball Canada to become men's performance manager after three years at the helm of Waterloo, "a dream came true" for former McMaster guard Justin Gunter. Now comes the wake-up call. He's toiling in the monstrous OUA, with eight rookies (mostly walk-ons), five sophomores and just three fourth-year players: Jon Ravenhorst, Ben Davis and Mike Pereira. Redshirt rookie point Dylan Phillips joins the trio in the starting line-up, along with post Muhammad Anwar. Off the bench come Kristian Vande Kemp and David Bajic. "What we're trying to do is get up the court quick on offence and get a good shot. And then on defence, we're just trying to lock in on the half-court and make teams beat us, don't beat ourselves, try to play a sort of high-efficiency style of basketball," Gunter says. "Somedays we're okay and other days, we're not."
The Nipissing program construction project, entering its second OUA campaign, will feature the return of all-rookie team selections Marcus Lewis and Marcos Clennon. Coach Chris Cheng has been starting Lewis, Michael Angenet, York transfer Jordon Campbell, Marvin Ngonadi and point guard Jerron Rhodes in the preseason, with Clennon and Joey Puddister coming off the bench. "It's just grooming, every day," Cheng says. "All our players know what their roles are. But they have to fulfill those roles each and every day."
Algoma will look to fifth-year vets Andre Barber and Brett Zufelt to lead a starting line-up that should also feature guards Sean Clendinning and Adam Benrabah, along with 6-8 Douglas College transfer Reng Deng. "The biggest thing is just we gotta compete every night," says Thunderbirds coach Thomas Cory. "That's what we've been harping on: Not being able to take plays off, or three or four minutes off."
That just can't be done in the deep, deep OUA.