Thursday, 3 September 2009

Neate Sager's St. John's vs. CIS weekend preview

Neate's article appeared in this morning's Ottawa Sun. As long-time readers know, Neate has been a strong supporter of this site and CIS sports in general, primarily via his creation The CIS Blog.

St. John's game "great opportunity" for Carleton Ravens

Dave Smart believes the St. John’s Red Storm is on par with any U.S. college basketball team which has come to the capital in recent times.

That is no faint praise from the Carleton Ravens coach. Area hoops fans have been treated to the Louisville Cardinals, Villanova Wildcats and Kansas Jayhawks, each of whom were either just removed or not far off from the NCAA Final Four.

St. John’s, which boasts much-hyped freshman guard Omari Lawrence, will play twice in the capital Sunday: At the Ravens’ Nest for a 1 p.m. game vs. Carleton, then across town for an 8:30 p.m. tipoff at Montpetit Hall vs. the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

“Villanova is probably the best team which has ever come here, but St. John’s is right up there,” says Smart, whose Ravens won their sixth CIS title in seven seasons in March. “Kansas (which visited in 2008) had the name recognition, but it had lost a couple guys. Louisville was missing a couple guys when it came here (in ’06).

“I think this game will be great opportunity for our guys to play a team that will be ranked in the Top 25. I talked to the Villanova guys. They believe St. John’s is a top-three team in the Big East.”

St. John’s has retained most of its scoring and rebounding from last season, including 6-foot-7 forward Anthony Mason Jr., whose dad and namesake was one of the NBA’s most feared defenders in the 1990s. Lawrence, a 6-foot-4 combo guard, is also a potential program-maker.

As much fun as it to watch a team of that echelon, it’s even more fun to play them, says Carleton forward Kevin McCleery.

“The Big East teams bring a kind of athleticism and pure talent we don’t see in our league,” the fifth-year post player says. “It’s not that they execute any better, but it is just amazing to see how competitive these teams are, how hard they all play, up and down their entire bench.

“Your first time playing these teams, it’s exciting, ‘wow, I’ve seen these guys on TV during March Madness. Now it’s more like, ‘I want to beat these guys.’ ”

Last Labour Day weekend, Carleton lost a one-point thriller to Kansas.

McCleery notes the Ravens “lost a lot of leadership all at once” when all-Canadians Aaron Doornekamp and Stu Turnbull and CIS defensive player of the year Rob Saunders graduated. McCleery, point guard Mike Kenny and swingman Cole Hobin are expected to pick up the slack.

“I think we’re a very talented team and a very talented dangerous team — one that scares both coaches,” Smart says.

“I know I’ve been spoiled over the last seven years. There wasn’t a whole deal of discrepancy between our best and our worst. Right now, it’s all about squeezing that gap.”

So playing St. John’s is something of a trial by fire.

“It’s really a no-lose situation,” Smart says. “If we crash and burn, I don’t think these kids are quitters.”

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