It might not surprise you to learn that the best college basketball team in Canada plays its home games before crowds of about 500 people, in a gym almost as nice as the one at your nearest suburban high school, on a campus filled with students who don’t much care how or when their team plays. Nor might you be surprised to learn they warm up to Drake, that their concession stand is a Tim Hortons, or that their sports information director is a part-time hockey coach who readily admits, “I really don’t know much about basketball.”
But here’s what might come as a surprise: The Carleton University Ravens are good. Not just “good for a Canadian school,” but really, legitimately good. They have a point guard who would start for most any team in America and a big man who drop-steps more beautifully than most players dunk. They scored 95 in an exhibition win over Wisconsin, 10 more points than any team has scored on the Badgers all year.1 They hung with Cincinnati on its home floor, beat TCU and Towson by 26 apiece, and they took Syracuse to overtime, playing the Orange tougher than most of the ACC.2
As for how they’ve fared against Canadian competition, Carleton won last year’s national championship game by 50 points. It was their ninth title in 11 years. Yes, the Ravens lost the equivalent of their conference championship game Saturday — on a buzzer-beater, no less — ending their 55-game winning streak against Canadian competition. But it says something that even if the Ravens go on to earn their 10th title in 12 years, 2014 will go down in Canadian basketball history primarily as “the year Carleton lost a game to Ottawa.”
Anyone who follows basketball has noticed the recent rise in Canadian talent. This is what the legacy of Steve Nash hath wrought: Canadians dot NCAA rosters from Syracuse to Gonzaga to UNLV. Two natives of the Toronto suburbs have gone in the top five of recent NBA drafts. Another Ontarian, Andrew Wiggins, may go no. 1 overall this coming June. In coming decades, the USA’s biggest challenger in international play might no longer be Spain or Argentina, but our neighbor to the north.
But here in the nation’s capital — Ottawa, that is — at a school next to the Rideau River, you’ll find the Canadian talent the NCAA forgot. The roster is full of players who dreamed of competing at U.S. Division I programs but are here instead because they were too small or too underdeveloped or perhaps just underexposed. Now they occupy a peculiar spot in the narrative of Canadian basketball’s rise. While their countrymen root for the Canadians starring on NCAA and NBA rosters, the Ravens are left playing with no full scholarships, no major TV contracts, and no real sense of universitywide support.
Yet their most pressing challenge comes not from their limitations, but from their strengths. When your most reliable tests are meaningless exhibitions, when national championships are the status quo, then what do you have left to play for?
If you want to head up to Ottawa, you can try to find out. Here, you’ll find the Carleton Ravens, tucked inside a building that shields them from the negative-30-degree chill, footsteps from intramural athletes who share their gym. Unable to find a challenger in Canada and unable to officially compete in the U.S., they’re left chasing some indefinable standard, left pursuing goals even they can barely name.
It’s almost impossible to know if Carleton will ever achieve what it’s striving for. But the striving itself can be a staggering thing to watch.
Carleton coach Dave Smart has gotten used to the question. It pops up at dinner parties, on airplanes, and anywhere else chitchat among strangers is required.
It starts innocently enough: “What do you do?”
Smart’s reply: “I’m the basketball coach at Carleton University.”
And then a quizzical look, always followed by the very same, very innocent, well-meaning follow-up: “No, but what do you do for a living?”
At this, Smart has no choice but to laugh. Coaching basketball is not viewed as a profession in Canada. It is a hobby, something to fill the time between hours spent doing meaningful work. “It’s not even just a basketball thing,” Smart says. “The culture surrounding sports is just not the same as it is in the States. Even if you coach hockey, unless you’re coaching the Senators or something, people might ask, ‘Is that really your job?’”
Coaching is, indeed, Smart’s full-time job. He started doing it at age 19, working with high school players while in school at Queen’s University. He started an AAU-style youth program, the Ottawa Guardsmen, a couple years later, and soon after that he joined Carleton as an assistant. After two years on the bench, Smart was promoted to head coach. Then he started winning national championships. He hasn’t really stopped since.
Ask around about how Carleton has dominated Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) so thoroughly, and you’ll hear a range of answers. “I do think we’re the most talented team,” says Ravens guard Philip Scrubb. “That helps.” Smart adds: “It starts with the fact that we just work hard,” and while that sounds clichéd, it hints at something more complex. Power forward Tyson Hinz fleshes it out more: “We just take basketball really seriously here. I’m not saying other schools don’t, but if you come here, you know that you’re going to practice harder than anyone in the country. You know your coaches are going to prepare harder than anyone in the country. I think there are maybe some places — not everywhere — where you play basketball, but you’re not really giving it your full focus. Here, it’s not like that at all.”
Because basketball in the CIS is not a billion-dollar industry like it is in the NCAA, Carleton faces few regulations. For one, Smart is allowed to work with both the Ravens and the Ottawa Guardsmen, his youth team, which spends its summers playing AAU tournaments in the United States and serves as something of a feeder program for Carleton. Imagine John Calipari coaching elite high schoolers at the Peach Jam or the Adidas Super 64. That’s essentially what’s allowed to happen in Canada. “There’s not really a need to have those restrictions,” says Smart. “There’s not enough money in basketball here for us to have to deal with the street agents. And besides, in this entire country you have maybe 45 or 50 people who are professional basketball coaches. Are you really going to have rules where those people aren’t allowed to give back to the grass roots? You’re hurting the kids if you’re not allowing them to be developed by the coaches who really know the game.”
CIS players get five years of eligibility, allowing them more time to develop, and perhaps most important, schools face minimal restrictions on practice time. In the NCAA, players may spend no more than 20 hours a week on “athletically related activities” during the season and no more than eight hours a week in the offseason. In Canada, coaches face no limitations during the season, and though they’re unable to conduct full practices during the summer, they can still work with players one-on-one. “If it’s July and my best player wants to spend eight hours a day working with me in the gym, we can do that,” Smart says. “Sometimes it’s crazy to look at an NCAA team with a lot of talent and hear talk about how they’re not well coached. Well, maybe they’re not, but in a lot of cases, that’s not the coach’s fault. There are a lot of really, really good Division I coaches, but the NCAA has set up a system where they’re not allowed to coach. Same thing with the players. You see a player who’s not improving, so it looks like he’s not working hard. Well, if you’re not getting coached, you can work as hard as you want, but what if you’re practicing bad habits? You’re still not going to improve.”
So here we are, late on a Tuesday afternoon, with a handful of players working alongside Smart in the far corner of the gym. They go through ballhandling drills, dribbling two balls at once as they race up and down the court. Soon they’ll go through shooting drills, practicing individual moves over and over again until they get them right. It is late January, conference season for teams in the States, a time for perfecting sets and preparing for opponents, not a time for going over fundamentals. But here, Smart requires his players to come in for individual skill instruction two times a week. And these sessions, perhaps more than anything else, are key to Carleton’s success.
“I can’t even imagine having restrictions on the amount of time you spend in the gym,” says Kevin Churchill, the team’s big man. “That’s just unfathomable to me.” By limiting practice hours, the NCAA hopes to provide athletes with adequate study time, but Carleton players say they thrive under the team’s demanding schedule. Hinz plans to play in Europe, and Scrubb has drawn interest from the NBA, but most players are preparing for careers outside of basketball.3 Their majors range from economics to civil engineering to physics. As for Churchill, the one who can’t fathom spending less time on the court? He’s earning a master’s in philosophy. He’ll begin applying to PhD programs next fall.
Smart uses practice time as a recruiting pitch. He has honed a spiel when recruiting kids who also draw attention from the NCAA. “First of all,” he says, “any kid who’s getting attention from a Kansas or a Duke, or probably even a Boston College — there’s really no sense in trying to talk to that kid. They’re going, and I don’t blame them. But what about the kids who are getting recruited at a mid-major level? I think I can make a case to those kids. For most kids at that level, they’re probably not going to make the NBA. But maybe they can play in Europe. So if that’s your goal, well, you can spend five years here getting coached, and you can become a really, really good player, and you can then have a long career overseas. At a mid-major school, you can’t get the same amount of coaching, and really, you’re not going to get any more exposure. So what is there really to gain?”
Yet the reality remains that practically any player who earns D-I offers is going to sign with a D-I school. Scrubb drew attention from Washington State and New Mexico State, but like everyone else on Carleton’s roster, he never received an offer. Says Tony McIntyre, father of Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis and coach of the elite Toronto AAU program CIA Bounce: “The mind-set has always been, If I get a D-I offer, I’m going. I could see that starting to change, but it’s a slow process. Even here in Canada, the D-I schools are the schools that are on TV. They’re the schools the media talks about. You can barely even find CIS games on TV unless it’s the playoffs. No one grows up dreaming of playing in CIS.”
Canadian players have long dreamed of playing in Division I, but more and more, Division I coaches dream of signing Canadian players. The reasons behind Canada’s rise are varied and complex, but a few driving forces stand out. The Toronto Raptors and, to a lesser extent, the now-departed Vancouver Grizzlies, brought the NBA up north when they were added as expansion teams in 1995. Scrubb and his brother Thomas, also a starter for Carleton, grew up in British Columbia rooting for Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the Grizzlies. Churchill’s childhood in Toronto featured regular trips to watch Vince Carter with the Raptors. “People around my age,” says Churchill, “if they grew up in Toronto, there’s a good chance they grew up as basketball fans. Vince Carter just drew people into the sport in a way that no one else ever had.”
Adds Jay Triano, an assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers who once coached the Raptors and still helms the Canadian national team: “Those teams came, and all of a sudden basketball was on the TV almost every night. You could find it before, but it wasn’t as big a part of the national conversation.”
And then there’s Steve Nash. “He became the role model for everyone,” says Churchill. “This 6-2 white guy from B.C., just killing people.”
But the foundation for Canada’s hoops ascendance was laid not by Nash or the Raptors, but rather by an act of Parliament, passed nearly two decades before the NBA arrived. The Immigration Act of 1976 opened Canada’s borders for waves of Asian, African, and Caribbean immigrants. By some metrics, today Canada rates as a more diverse country than the United States. More than half of Toronto’s residents were born outside of Canada, and, not coincidentally, the nation’s largest city has become the hub of its basketball talent.
Just look at the best players to come out of Canada in recent years. Tristan Thompson, the first in the recent wave of Canadian lottery picks, is the son of Jamaican immigrants. The mother of Anthony Bennett, last year’s no. 1 overall pick, also hails from Jamaica. Wiggins’s mom came to Canada from Barbados. Former McDonald’s All American Myck Kabongo was born in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.4
And no, not all of Canada’s basketball talent comes from immigrant families. The Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk, Baylor’s Brady Heslip, and Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos all hail from families with deep roots in Canadian hoops.5 But diversity in the population has led to diversity in youth sports options. “Obviously, hockey has a hold on this country,” says McIntyre, “but it doesn’t have a hold on everyone. And especially in Toronto, with the city being so multicultural, you see kids playing a number of sports growing up.” Once, hockey was the only game on most every block. Now, if the Sudanese immigrant down the street is playing hoops, his Anglo Canadian neighbor might take off his skates and pick up a basketball.
Also at play: From an early age, the best players tend to get the best coaching. “We have great coaches,” says Triano, “and they’re involved in the game at every level.” Smart can spend his summers rotating between individual workouts with Carleton players and overseas tours with the national team, while still finding time to work with players in his youth program.
The Internet has also opened up access to resources previously controlled by the sport’s gatekeepers. In a recent column for ESPN.com, Nash wrote: “Now, any Canadian kid can jump on YouTube and not only watch the world’s best and brightest — including within their age group — but also even see and learn what training regimens or practice sessions look like in other countries and programs. This goes for coaches, too.”
Years ago, McIntyre would take his AAU teams to tournaments in the States and look for any excuse to omit the fact that they hailed from Canada. “We wouldn’t get respect,” he says. “Not from the officials or the other players or anybody.” Now, recently removed from a summer when his team featured Wiggins, Ennis, and Florida State signee Xavier Rathan-Mayes, “We’re the team that everyone wants to see. It used to be that team from New York or California. Now it’s that team from Toronto.”
While CIA Bounce might inspire fear in American AAU teams, Carleton has no such effect on NCAA opponents. “We’ve played enough of those games to know exactly how it’s going to go,” says Churchill. “There’s always a lot of disrespect. You can just see it in the first two or three minutes of every game. They always think they’re going to walk right over us.” It’s understandable. Take one look at Carleton’s layup line and you’ll wonder how they and Syracuse could ever occupy the same floor. The Ravens’ biggest starters, Hinz and Churchill, are both listed generously at 6-foot-7. Physically, Carleton can’t even match most mid-major teams.
But the talent is there. Philip Scrubb dropped 32 on Villanova, got 30 and 12 against Wisconsin, won two straight national player of the year awards, went to training camp with the Canadian senior national team, and prompted Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to say, “He could play for any team.”6 Hinz, the power forward, has won a national player of the year award of his own. He had 25 and 10 against Wisconsin, 16 and 13 against the Orange. Both players have offensive skill sets that could place them among the NCAA’s elite. Hinz is a human Mikan drill, liable to drop-step his way past bigger defenders or float in a hook shot with either hand. Scrubb uses ball screens like trap doors, finding his way into a defense’s every crease. Both shoot around 50 percent from 3.
The two stars are surrounded by a rotation of role players who do two things exceptionally well: defend and shoot. When Carleton isn’t pressing, it’s trapping in the half-court, and when the ball isn’t in Scrubb’s or Hinz’s hands, it’s being kicked to an open shooter. The night I saw Carleton play, the Ravens’ opponent, unranked York University, consisted of talented players with incomplete skill sets: athletes who weren’t really basketball players or basketball players who weren’t really athletes. Among those who know CIS basketball, however, there is a consensus that Carleton’s dominance comes more from coaching and discipline than from overwhelming talent. “There are a few guys on every top team in CIS who could easily play Division I,” says Triano. “It’s not just Carleton.”
Smart holds tight to a system of organizing his offense. In any given game, only three players have the green light to shoot 3s whenever they’re open. Six more can shoot on kickouts from penetration or the post. As for everyone else, they’re either sitting on the bench or cutting to the basket, never floating near the perimeter. The list changes weekly, always dictated by who’s shooting well in practice, and though Scrubb and Hinz are almost always among the top three, Smart says he won’t hesitate to demote them if they go cold. The results are outrageous. The Ravens shoot 44.3 percent from behind the arc and hit 11.3 3-pointers a game. That percentage is the best in Canada and would easily lead the NCAA.
Still, Smart is frank about his program’s limitations. Players can receive scholarships only if they maintain an 80 average in their high school classes, and even then, the aid doesn’t come close to a full ride. “These kids should have everything paid for,” he says. “They shouldn’t have to be scraping together the money to pay for school.”
But their money is commensurate with their importance in Canada’s sports landscape, which is, to be frank, pretty low. This is the Canadian version of John Wooden’s UCLA, yet they play many of their games before a friends-and-family crowd. We’re at a school with nearly 27,000 students, but in this half-full 1,200-seat gym, there is no student section. The most thrilling plays are met with the lightest of applause. It is a crowd fit for a high school junior varsity game, a group unmoved by the excellence on the floor. “They’re spoiled,” says the school’s sports information director, Michael Beasley. “The winning is almost boring.”
Smart, however, thinks the issues are more structural. “We have to build up the culture surrounding university sports in this country,” he says. “I think we can find a balance. In the States maybe it’s too important. Here it’s not important enough. If we give these kids full scholarships, we can convince more of them to stay here instead of going to the NCAA. And if we do that, and we can get more games on TV, then we can get more people to come to games. Then we build up alumni support, and we give people a connection to their university. Right now, that’s missing in Canada. That sense of school pride just isn’t really there.”
Smart has been approached about opportunities with NCAA schools. Once, he says, he even accepted a job. “I called a meeting to tell the team,” he remembers. “I went into the room, and the team is all sitting there. They’ve killed themselves for me every single day for their entire careers. It didn’t feel right to leave. So instead of telling them I was leaving, I just screamed at them for 45 minutes. I acted like that was the reason I’d called the meeting, just so I could yell at them.” That afternoon, he called the school back and told them he’d changed his mind.
Still, he says, if NCAA opportunities continue to arise, “I’ll never not talk to someone. But it would take a lot for me to go down there. To leave my city, to take my family, to leave my team, to leave everything I like about the Canadian system.” He and his wife have settled on a number. Four years at $500,000 a year or five years at $400,000 a year. “With that,” he says, “I could look my players in the eyes and tell them I have to do this for my family. But it’s not going to happen. No school is giving a contract of more than three years to a new coach, even though you need at least four years to build your program.”
Some have suggested that Carleton move to the NCAA. British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University recently became the first Canadian school to join the NCAA’s Division II, but Carleton seems unlikely to follow. “There’s always speculation, but it’s not an option for us,” athletic director Jennifer Brenning told the Ottawa Sun. “It’s a big challenge. The NCAA wouldn’t allow a Canadian school into Division I. You’d have to go Division II. And you can’t just enter one team. You need 10 teams — five men’s and five women’s. There are certain financial commitments as well. The cost would be very prohibitive. There are some very stringent requirements.”
So for now, the Ravens are left with their annual taste of disrespect from Division I opponents. “You see them look at the scoreboard or look at each other like, ‘Uh-oh,’” says Churchill. “All of a sudden they’re down 10. You can see it hitting them, that they’re just starting to realize what they’re in for.” Adds Smart: “I’m sure that’s part of the reason we’re able to win some of those games — the players just aren’t expecting us to be any good. I’m sure the coaches are telling their kids that we can really play, but until you’re experiencing it, it probably just doesn’t compute.”
Ask the Carleton players, and they’ll all give you the same answer. Beating Division I programs is nice, but winning Canadian national championships is the ultimate goal. “That’s what we’re playing for,” says Churchill. “That’s our focus every day.”
And yet the national championship celebrations have become rote, an annual tradition, as much a relief as a source of joy. “There’s a natural tendency to get complacent,” says Hinz. The Ravens insist their competition is getting better. They point to rare narrow wins and even rarer losses, and when they say things like this, from Hinz — “We didn’t even win the national championship my first year here” — they do so with a straight face.
Smart himself spouts philosophies like a Canadian Nick Saban on hardwood: “It’s more about the process and less about the results.” You see this in games, when the team is up 30 and Smart’s still screaming, demanding more pressure, more effort, fewer mistakes, and a bigger lead. You see it when he pulls aside Scrubb, one of the best players in recent CIS history, and screams in his face — “Get the ball in the fucking paint!” — and watches as Scrubb merely nods. You see it in practice, where mistakes from young players turn the veterans apoplectic. “If you’re going to play here,” says Hinz, “you need to have the kind of personality where a coach screaming at you is the least of your worries. You need to invite that kind of coaching. No one here is going to let that kind of stuff send them home crying.”
And you see it after games, when the scoreboard goes off and the gym clears out. Many nights, the players stay. They hang around, still in uniform, and they put up extra shots. Churchill, the grad student in philosophy, sees his team as still chasing an unmet ideal. “We’re going for perfection,” he says. “Why not try to be perfect on every single possession? Maybe that’s intangible. Maybe it’s hard to measure. But that has to be the goal.”
For a team with almost no rivals and a trophy case full of national championship hardware, it’s the only thing left to achieve.