Canadian basketball: CIS or NCAA? Little Brother is Growing Up…

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TORONTO, ON – Canadian basketball players have been making noise in the NCAA longer than people think. In 2004, Canadian Denham Brown won a National Championship playing for the University of Connecticut Huskies. He made history again in 2006 when UCONN was the last victim in 11-seed George Mason University’s run to the Final Four.

But with all due respect to Brown, his role was fairly marginal other than for his senior year when he averaged 10.7 points and hit a lay-up to force overtime during the George Mason game.

Based off of a growing pattern, Canadians play a bigger role in their respective teams’ fortunes. Syracuse Orange fans already know this with the performances, these past few years, of Andy Rautins and Kris Joseph. This season, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph were freshmen starting for the Texas Longhorns and will be on an NBA team roster before long. Next year, Myck Kabongo, Kevin Pangos and Khem Birch are taking their talents to Texas, Gonzaga and Pitt respectively. Kevin Thomas also to Texas, and Braeden Anderson to Kansas. That is only scratching the surface for the class of 2011 high school graduates.

Even the most skeptical can’t help but feel like Canadian basketball is alive and well. And if this year’s McDonald’s All-American High School game -where 3 Canadians played, a new record- was any indication, this is just the beginning, and the sport hasn’t finished growing in Canada. Yet, it still lags behind American basketball — much like every country in the world, mind you. In many ways, Canada is still America’s little brother on the basketball court.

For most Canadians, the experience of playing college basketball occurs in the CIS, which differs from playing Division I basketball in ways other than having a shorter shot clock. “If you’ve got a chance to play on national TV with all the hype and the extra fringe benefits that a mid- to high major Division I program can provide, then I would be lying to say that I can provide the same thing,” says Roy Rana, head coach of the Ryerson Rams. “I can provide a different experience.”

That experience begins with education as the emphasis in Canada, placed on the student side of the student-athlete. “I think that it is a lot more true to the student-athlete experience than it is in the U.S.,” says Rana. “It’s not a business in Canada and really is more of an amateur experience.”

Still, the level of play of Canadian basketball is improving by the year, thinks John Dore, head coach of the Concordia Stingers. “The [CIS] basketball is only different from the major schools of Division I,” says Dore.

Case in point, most think that the CIS can’t measure up to the 50 or so elite programs of the NCAA; for example, a Carleton or a UBC don’t match up to a Kentucky or a Villanova. “There is no comparison,” says Ken Murray, the former Brock Badgers head coach. During Murray’s tenure, Brock was able to beat NCAA Division I teams, but never the top programs.

These elite programs are the easiest and safest way to reach the NBA and because of that, they tend to attract the best players from both the United States and Canada. Jacques Paiement, head coach of the Laval Rouge et Or, knows this first hand as his team lost to Jimmer Fredette’s BYU Cougars earlier this season. “We can compete with most teams, but the best ones are definitely something else,” says Paiement. “For sure, Fredette is impressive.”

The elite programs of Division I usually have bigger financial means, which equals bigger facilities. The Carleton Ravens’ nest, seating 1,500, isn’t exactly the Tar Heels’ Dean Smith Center (i.e. 21,750 seats). Rana says that, “The resources put in the sport are at a different level.”

Dore explains, “I think we do a great job with what we have. We have limited resources here.” Considering that Concordia finished 12-4, first in the RSEQ and reached the CIS Final 8 this season, he might be right.

Adding on, Murrays says that, “We’re lacking in facilities and we’re lacking in full-time sports staff.”

Yet, that’s not all. “I think there’s a culture of athletics in the U.S. that’s very different than the culture of athletics in Canada,” says Rana. Other than for the Canadian college students – and even then – rooting for a CIS team is not the Canadians’ forte as much as it is for Americans. This translates into less thorough media coverage and much smaller scholarship funds in Canada.

But for Concordia’s Kyle Desmarais, there’s a downside to the NCAA experience. “It’s a lot more disciplined over there, and it’s a business,” says the young man. “Everyone’s job is on the line, always. Any mistake is a big thing.”

Most agree that the comparison between the CIS and the mere mortal programs of other programs of the NCAA is absolutely valid. Division I has 345 teams, leaving the CIS still in good company if you take out the top 50 programs. At that level, Desmarais thinks that Canada offers a lot. The point guard, who transferred from Central Connecticut State to Concordia prior to last season, explains that, “I needed to go somewhere where I would develop better as a player.”

Above all, a young man needs to know that wherever he decides to go, he needs to play regularly if he wants to improve his game. “If you’re a good player,” says Desmarais, “people will notice you.”

But to be noticed, you need to play regularly, and Murray says it helps that Americans see Canadian basketball in a better light. So much so that now, only one thing matters. “At the end of the day, “you need to play,” explains Murray.

‘Where’ doesn’t matter as much as ‘how much’ in 2011.

Despite what Allen Iverson suggested years ago, it is true that practice makes perfect or comes closest to. But, there are game situations that can’t be replicated during practices and it is during these that players make the greatest strides; it isn’t, though, if and when a player only plays sparingly. That is why Desmarais transferred after a first season at Central Connecticut State where he played only 6.9 minutes per game.

In Murray’s mind, a Canadian player who received a scholarship to play at Duke and managed only a 1.8-point-per-game average would have been better off staying in Canada, where he would have played regularly in front of friends and family and, on top of that, had a 1-in-42 chance of winning a national championship. Long odds, perhaps, but most would take these over the odds of a Division I mid-major.

Tim Micallef, a long-time analyst of basketball at The Score Television Network, thinks that the difference starts at the high school level. “Here, you’re lucky if you have a guy who’s played basketball as your high school coach.” In his mind, the more Canadian players stay in Canada to play in the CIS, the better and the sooner that Canadian basketball will catch up to the elite programs of the NCAA.

The history of Canadian basketball is similar to that of a kid brother who can hang around with his older American sibling, but is quickly overmatched. Perhaps this is changing. When players such as Desmarais (Central Connecticut), UofT’s Alex Hill (Cornell) and other CIS studs transfer from the United States to play in Canada, it seems that little brother isn’t so little anymore; that younger brother, rather, is growing up. Quickly.

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