VANCOUVER — In a real sports country with an elaborate media culture built to get casual fans to care about real student-athletes, Calgary Dinos vs. Carleton Ravens would be a dream matchup.
Instead, and this is a two-way go, it could be like that gift that took you by surprise at first. No doubt there was a priming for the CIS Final 8 to come down to Carleton and the Ryerson Rams in a rematch of the OUA Wilson Cup. Rivals who have a lot of interrelated traits, one reflecting The 613's flinty toughness and the other embodying the hunger and hoops talent bubbling up in The Six.
Instead, the 'settle' is Thomas Cooper , who's found roundball renewal as a 25-a-night scorer leading the Dinos, against Carleton in the one game that the Ravens plan to win. Carleton has that juggernaut mystique, and a victory would give it a six-peat, one away from Ken Shields' 1980-86 Victoria Vikes.
Carleton, in character is not so much in recruiting footprint, is as eastern Ontario as cheese curds. The United Nations of Southern Alberta has a top scorer from Chattanooga, an Australian two, a German four, and David Kapinga as their hometown point guard.
"First team I heard about — first team I heard about," said Cooper, that incandescent itinerant whose one-on-one game is as mellifluous as his American South accent. "They are a good program. They have won numerous championships in the past years.
"We have to treat it like it's another team," emphasized Cooper, who took two years off from basketball before joining Calgary and leading Canada West with 25.7 a game, 6.4 more than any other scorer. "No one even expected us to win today [Saturday against Ryerson]."
Cooper had the 30 points with 11 rebounds against Ryerson, but there are red flags in his line. He finished with a 47.9 per cent effective shooting (10-of-24, three triples) and 1:5 assist/turnover ratio. That was against Ryerson, which counts on length and quickness to defend the wing. Carleton is all about percentage-playing, making the drive inveigling and then springing a trap. Or forcing a shooter to put it up from a couple feet farther than he's accustomed.
A common trend at a basketball Final 8 is that teams can build strategies to stop the player of the year or big-time scorer who blew in with hype, such as it is, by default. They don't often leave with that piece of net cord tucked into the hat passed out to winning players.
"He's a walking event for us," Dinos coach Dan Vanhooren said. "All of the other guys get to respond to that and it often brings a positive outcome for us."
Through 80 minutes against McGill and Ryerson, though, Dinos point guard David Kapinga has been more of a revelation, and more integral to Calgary's success.
A point guard that can beat the up-top pressure can help a team ask questions of Carleton that Carleton has not been asked, especially if the wings are hitting the way Calgary forward Jasdeep Gill did with his off-bench 23 on 84.6% eFG. The teams that have each beaten Carleton twice since January, Ottawa with Michael L'Africain and Ryerson with Manny Diressa, each had that element.
Kapinga went for 26 points/69.2% eFG against Ryerson and drew 14 free throws, with a 6:2:4 assists/steals/turnover line. He did stuff to Ryerson that Ryerson hadn't been asked very often.
"Kapinga just made championship plays, something we haven't seen all year," Rams coach Patrick Tatham pointed out late Saturday night. He beat us off the bounce – something we have not seen all year. It was like Ryerson against Ryerson."
Kapinga also had four fouls against the Rams, and Carleton will try to foul him out, like it has sometimes done to defensive player of the year Caleb Agada. That's taking a kid's best toy and breaking it, with no hard feelings. Kapinga is the fulcrum of these Dinos as much as Cooper, but will have to keep being dogged and disciplined, a tough check-and-balance.
"Kapinga's pulling it along at the right time," Cooper noted. "He's getting it together as the games get bigger. He's hard to get in front of and he's really a hassle on defence. His playing confidently really helps us right now."
Vanhooren will try about anything, knowing that's how the tournament goes. His favorite/most frequent five, player usage-wise, is Kapinga; Cooper; Australian fifth-year Josh Owen Thomas; forward Lars Schlueter; forward Matt Letkeman. The next two 'favorite fives' reflect the rotational contributors: Jhony Verrone, 6-6 big Dallas Karch and rookie guard Torrez McKoy.
Aside: Jhony, Dallas, Torrez? These are great names! Speaking of great basketball names ...
Against Ryerson, Vanhooren turned to Jasdeep Gill, who averaged 13.5 minutes. Gill had a 51.8% eFG in conference play, including 34% on triples. The forward got 23 over 25 minutes on 9-of-13 overall and 4-of-7 on triples, for 84.6% eFG.
"I wasn't a shooter when I was younger, but you have to expand your game at the university level," Gill said. "The groove just started and my teammates supported me."
'Fly by it a little bit'
Point being, while Carleton tries to filter out the randomness inherent in a game where good shots rattle out and bad shots catch rim and count, Vanhooren will play the wild card.
"My inconsistency with my substitution pattern is geared to every guy feeling like he can have a chance," Vanhooren said. "Whether it's Jazzy, Dallas or Torrez, someone has helped us.
"If they're playing well, I will run with them a bit longer. You got to fly by it a little bit.
Those are all X factors for Calgary, which at this level, has had some awesome athleticism, going back to the high-bounding Bekkering boys, Ross and Henry, in the late aughties. Those teams were a treat to have in Ottawa the first the nationals were there.
That brings it to a theme for each team. In a 4-on-4 game on some outdoor court in July, neither this Calgary nor this Carleton might do much against their respective predecessors. They each have a good opportunity, coming up in about 5½ hours on the Sportsnet 360.