#CISFinal8: Gee-Gees go into Next Year Country looking to avoid a 'stall point'

VANCOUVER — Everyone 4,300 km away in the capital — whom given the state of CIS coverage, probably only saw a tweet of the score and a 'chain story' from a writer who had never seen them until Thursday — will have a theory about what went wrong for the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Which is fine and dandy, at a time where having a very finite of people who can get paid to ask the questions has begat endless opining. The Gee-Gees' denouement was definitely a 'Define Irony.' Once the results were in, it felt like the James Derouin gang, still the foils to Carleton, might have started to fray on Jan. 16 when CIS defensive player of the year Caleb Agada incurred a high ankle sprain while closing out the Ravens on the road after eventual player of the year Michael L'Africain had made the decider for the two-point win.

They pulled off their first Capital Hoops Classic win in February minus Agada in front of 10,105 fans at Canadian Tire Centre. Once everyone got back, though, they never smoothed everything over and peaked in March.

"I think the biggest thing that hurt us was Caleb's injury, and I am not saying that Caleb didn't come back well," said forward Vikas Gill, one of the outgoing fifth-year tri-captains along with L'African and defensive specialist Mehdi Tihani.

"Last year, it happened too when Mike was injured. We kind of hit the 'stall point.' When you play without someone such as Mike or Caleb, you step your game up. Everyone has to be better. Everyone has to do this. Everyone has to do that. You kind of relax — 'we have Caleb back, the best rebounder, the best defender.' The thing there is that if we keep that mentality of they're missing, we would have kept peaking. We relaxed.

"The same thing happened last season with Windsor. We beat Windsor without Mike, then played them in the OUA Final Four and we lost. Injuries are part of basketball; we're really good when a player gets injured, but not good when they get back."

Superficially, the Gees' stretch-four shuffle from Gill to Matt Plunkett on their first and second units seemed like a play to give more run to Plunkett, who might be the country's best pure shooter. In truth, the 23-year-old Gill, was limited by the back and knee issues. Basketball takes a toll on tall men's joints and fascia, you know.

"I was overtraining," said Gill, a Stittsville, Ont., native. "It took its toll."

In the four-point quarter-final loss against Dalhousie, L'Africain played the second half with a badly bruised knee. Everyone has injuries, but a healthier guard creates a possible five-point swing, no?

"It happened in the first quarter," L'Africain said after sitting out the consolation games. "I would have sucked it up for the semifinal."

A hollow finish doesn't hollow out a five-year contributor's legacy, really. Or the takeaway that Ottawa has figured out that to win, you need a balanced strength from having a group that is together 10-11 months a year, like Carleton.

"We showed here that it's cool to play for each other, cool to work hard," L'Africain added. "Not just swag out and go through the motions. Not everyone, but some guys before us did that, and it happens in other programs. We sacrificed our summers, especially Mehdi and Vik, who didn't get the same recognition as some of us. Their sacrifice speaks volumes to everyone else."

That last part touches on one of Carleton's hidden factors, that their players mostly stay together in the off-season. It's surprising that this isn't de rigeur in CIS, since Carleton has done it for years and even the anti-athlete NCAA allows summer job programs.

"I came the August I was recruited and never left," L'Africain related. "Not a lot of teams do it. It makes a difference, man. I've been in Ottawa 10 months a year, or more. It's a difference. It's why we always get off to a hard start. Everyone's together, the whole family."

Sixth place at nationals is a step back, but it's only transitory. Basketball, year over year, is not like auto racing with a race for the overall points lead. Now, it is impressive to see the Wall of Champions in the hall of the Ravens' Nest at Carleton. That is another irony, since if the people who created and sustained the dynasty listened to the 'X championships in Y years' talk (better use letters in case this piece needs to be written again in '17, '18 and '19), Carleton would lose their edge.

For the Gees, it's not that they lost, it's about matching the edge.

"Of course we wanted to finish our careers with a gold medal," Tihani said. "That was our last goal as a team after five years. It's not about the end, it's about what we did over four or five years that we were together. We made a lot of history, and that's the positive side."

Four consecutive Final 8 trips, with the 2013 bronze and '14-15 silvers. Their court CV also includes four wins against Carleton, including one in the 2014 OUA Wilson Cup. That stems from the departing trio and the '15 fifth-years, guard Johnny Berhanemeskel and forward Gabriel (Gab) Gonthier-Dubue.

"When I came I originally told Coach Jimmy, championship or not, we wanted to leave the program better than we left it," Gill said of when he arrived in 2011-12, Derouin's second season. "I feel like I contributed to that, so did Mike, so did Mehdi, Gab and Johnny. Next year I look at the roster and I'm excited – I think they're going to win."

There are tinges of Carleton in that — just reload, and treat every season as if it is a rebuild. That also quells fretting about whether the Gees are geeked out by being the 'second team' in Ottawa, where the casual sports follower is just inured to Carleton winning.

Two hilarious personal examples of that.

  • The Grantland article about Carleton on March 3, 2014, which was very well-done, was of course getting posted all over my Facebook feed, since I live in Ottawa and know a lot of people who do follow CIS. Almost none, though, seemed to know that a couple nights earlier, Ottawa had actually shaded Carleton 78-77 in the Wilson Cup when Berhanemeskel hit a last-second winner.
  • Last week outside Mick E Fynn's, the pub which is on the other side of Carlton St. in Toronto from Mattamy Athletic Centre. Falling into conversation with an acquaintance, a blind goal ball player who was in the area to play in a national blind hockey tournament. His guide, upon mention of the basketball, said, "I hear Carleton's not that good anymore."

    "They have won it all the last five years."

    "But their other teams were stronger."

    Notwithstanding that Carleton doesn't think that way, the point was the obvious. The Ravens only get compared to predecessors, and to the less than half aware, there isn't even a second place in CIS.

That would stoke the fear that the Gee-Gees' impact might disappear into the ether. It's worth pointing out that five years ago, when the novelty was wearing off Capital Hoops, the Gee-Gees started to improve, with crowds going past 10,000 in back-to-back years for the first time in the event's 10-year history.

That is a legacy in a sports that does charge admission.

"We got better over the years, and people started noticing," said Tihani, a Gloucester, Ont., native. "Moving up to this year and last year those crowds were much stronger."

At that point in 2012 when the Gee-Gees lost Capital Hoops by 40 points, one could be a little lachrymose about Carleton's competition, so-called. They went unbeaten in 2011-12, with Phil Scrubb was working on his first Moser Award as a 19-year-old second-year, and Tyson Hinz was in his third season. A past CIS rookie of the year Clinton Springer-Williams Jr. was sitting out as a transfer, too.

"It allowed other teams to see us compete and it opened some eyes across the country," Derouin said. "For a while it didn't look like they [Carleton] were ever going to lose."

Tough to prove, but Ottawa's example and a commensurate surge in the depth of talent in Ottawa have gone hand-in-hand to OUA's growth. It generally has four teams that are good enough to get an auto or the at-large berth, and there's another four teams who could tear up a tournament ticket like Steph Barrie's Queen's Gaels nearly did to Ottawa in the OUA quarter-final.

Those takeaways can be pulled into a larger point. There is more out there for CIS basketball, much more, than Carleton. It is understandable that one school having X championships in Y seasons (writing it that way in order to have this again in '17, '18 and '19, ha-ha) might glaze over some eyes.

Ottawa just has to figure out how to win the Final 8. That, and/or hope someone picks off Carleton in an OUA quarter-final.

As far as 2016-17, Ottawa has 6-foot-8 forward Jean-Pierre Emmanuel-Charles, a former Carleton contributor, coming in as a transfer. Their retention includes their Nathan McCarthy/Brody Maracle platoon. Plunkett, who hit 15 triples in the tournament, will work in at the 3 and 4-forward spots. Agada will be the fulcrum and a Player of the Year candidate. Calvin Epistola is pencilled in at point guard, although he will only be a second-year.

"The identity around Mike is probably going to be the biggest vacuum," Derouin said. "We ran stuff through Mike."

They can never totally replace Carleton, but Gill's last word shows there is a commitment to copying it. He said there was a sense of that when Derouin brought in a seven-player recruiting class in 2012-13. They were rising up to what Ottawa also had, in a different form, during the best days with David DeAviero in the previous decade.

"The second year, I remembering immediately seeing that with Caleb and Matt Plunkett, we were going to have a lot of talent," Gill recalled. "And it was not just talent but hard workers, guys who might have slightly less talent but are hard workers. They brought that great work ethic you need."

One of the years, if not next year, it will be enough.
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