Men's basketball: Breaking down the D: Ottawa’s key to upsetting the Ravens

We welcome a guest piece from SSN's Greg Gallagher on tonight's Carleton-Ottawa men's basketball rematch ...

That the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees disappointed in front of over 7,000 fans at Scotiabank Place two weeks ago on the losing end of a 74-34 loss to the Carleton Ravens might be the understatement of the decade, considering it’s been at least that long since the Gees scored that few points in a game.

The big-venue sightlines and atmosphere didn’t really factor in that much in the big picture, as they would have affected both teams. Missing top scorer Warren Ward definitely was a factor for the Gee-Gees, but his presence alone may not even have pushed them to victory on that night.

Heading into Friday’s rematch of the Capital Hoops Classic at the Ravens’ Nest, head coach James Derouin stated that fixing the offence would be the focus.

“The big difference between this game and Capital Hoops is now some of our first-year players and young guys now understand what it is like to play against Carleton,” said Derouin on the Gee-Gees’ website. “Carleton is without question the top team in the country, and it really showed our young players a whole other level that they need to get to.”

What was often overlooked after their sputtering offensive performance was that the Gee-Gees — save for Carleton’s 16-0 run to open the second half — could hang their hat on their defence. They held Carleton to 22 points at halftime, though only putting up 16 of their own.

In fact, it was two years ago at the Capital Hoops Classic when the Gee-Gees held their crosstown rivals to 74 points, that time by a closer 74-66 score. Since then, the Ravens have not scored less than 74 in a game.

Friday’s game should be closer, but the outcome may not be evident at first glance.

Carleton gunners Tyson Hinz and Philip Scrubb will most likely lead the offensive charge and be the difference should Carleton grab the win. Cole Hobin and Willy Manigat will hound the Ottawa guards much like they did at Scotiabank Place.

And therein lies the main key to victory for the Gee-Gees: finding a way to initiate the offence through Carleton’s first line of defenders.

First-year point guard Mike L’Africain, Ottawa’s most talented and pure point guard since Teti Kabetu quarterbacked the team from 2001 to 2006, has been counted on heavily this season. Not only has he shown spectacular court vision and passing skill, his shot selection is that of a veteran and he has a sixth sense of when to attack the basket himself.

But even counting most of the preseason games against NCAA Division I opponents, L’Africain had not seen a stifling defence like that all season, and it showed against Carleton with a season-high six turnovers.

On most possessions, he had trouble even manoeuvring in the half-court set to get the first pass in. But equally a problem for the four other Gee-Gees on the floor was the Ravens’ trademark ability to flawlessly help on defence and close out the passing lanes.

More than anything, this lethal combination of rotations and close-outs forced the Gee-Gees into either tough looks while staring down zeros on the shot clock, or a lot more perimeter shots because of an inability to pound the ball safely inside.

I remarked more than once on our SSN broadcast that night on the play of a guy like Ravens forward Kevin Churchill, who was rock-solid in his ability to change a game on the defensive end, not by putting up massive rebounding numbers but rather by helping deny a good shot in the first place by doing these things on D. If you ask me, he was as much a key to victory all night as Hinz was.

Numbers-wise, both teams rebound the ball well. Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue, whose second year has seen the rewards of hard work, will be an x-factor underneath as will Shamus Ferguson. They, along with the Gee-Gees perimeter defenders, reacted well to Carleton’s propensity to make one or two extra passes, designed to spread the defence, and the series of high-low or post-to-post feeds which can often lead to easy buckets.

Both teams can shoot. We all know who will lead the charge for Carleton, and the Gee-Gees have counter-weapons in Johnny Berhanemeskel and Vikas Gill, who will need to be sharper in making perimeter shots off passes out of double teams.

Also look for fourth-year guard Jacob Gibson-Bascombe, who provided some steady minutes in relief at the point-guard spot in the second quarter of the previous matchup, to bring a calming veteran presence.

The Gee-Gees can look to two previous games — Dec. 2 vs. Laurier (No. 6 in the CIS at the time) and last Friday vs. Laurentian — to take valuable experience from. In both, the young Gees were in it until the dying minutes, when they simply couldn’t make enough stops.

Scoring wasn’t a problem in each, as they dropped a 77-76 decision to Laurier and lost 90-80 to Laurentian, which featured a 31-point performance from CIS top scorer Manny Pasquale.

As mentioned, the Gee-Gees made the stops against the Ravens, and they should again. If they can draw from their solid offensive experiences vs. Laurier and Laurentian and find a way to put up the points, this game will a lot closer.

Will it be close enough to steal a win on the road? The margin of error will hover around zero, and every possession will matter. However, the Gee-Gees have more big-game experience under their belts for the rematch, which will determine how playoff-ready they are.

Let’s play ball and find out. This one will be better, and you won’t want to miss it.
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