It wasn’t the Final Four, but Calgary basketball fans were nonetheless treated to a taste of American college action August 15–17 at the Jack Simpson Gymnasium, where the Dinos hosted two Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association teams in the 2013 Battle of the Border preseason tournament.
The four-team tournament featured men’s teams from Arkansas State University and University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who made the journey north for some exhibition matches against the Dinos and the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
Anyone who assumed that Canadian Interuniversity Sport squads wouldn’t stand a chance against teams from the top-level of the United States’s college athletic system were proven wrong on day one. The Dinos defeated the UALR Trojans 71–68, led by a 21-point performance from dynamic fourth-year point guard Jarred Ogungbemi-Jackson.
The Dinos join a host of CIS teams who scored victories against NCAA teams in preseason matches this summer. Alberta, McGill, Carleton and Ottawa all beat various NCAA teams in tournaments held across Canada.
“It is impressive,” said Dinos basketball head coach Dan Vanhooren. “It’s a testament to the quality of kids that we have and what they’re willing to do as Canadian players to try and get better. Honestly, I think the CIS is showing that they’re a lot closer [to the NCAA level] than what most people think.”
Staying competitive against NCAA teams that enjoy more funding and boast deep lineups is a tremendous challenge for CIS squads. According to Vanhooren, these two factors make matching-up throughout the course of a game difficult for his team.
“Most of their bench guys are guys that would play major minutes for us,” said Vanhooren. “When our starters get into foul trouble and we get into our bench a little, it starts to cost us.”
That was the challenge the Dinos faced in their second game of the tournament, a 96–76 loss to the Arkansas State University Red Wolves, who were lead by shockingly powerful six-foot-ten forward Kirk Van Slyke. Despite a solid game from new Rocky Mountain College transfer Philip Barndt and a dazzling 27-point outing from Ogungbemi-Jackson, the Dinos were outplayed by a large and skilled Red Wolves squad. It was a loss that Ogungbemi-Jackson was eager to learn from.
“Some of these teams have been to the NCAA tournament,” said Ogungbemi-Jackson. “For us, it’s about playing against physical and better teams. It’s great preparation for our season.”
He was also impressed by the consistent four-quarter efforts that the NCAA teams demonstrated.
“The level of intensity is sustained throughout a whole game,” said Ogungbemi-Jackson. “Staying competitive every quarter and playing hard every possession is something we as a team need to learn.”
“We tried a few different things tonight,” said Vanhooren, who was equally ready to take some positives from the loss. “Some worked and some didn’t. But our enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the face of failure.”
While Ogungbemi-Jackson is likely to be the centrepiece of the team this year, he can expect to be surrounded by some significant talent. New recruit Barndt already put his athletic and leadership abilities on display during the preseason bouts.
Another intriguing addition is the currently injured Josh Turner. A transfer from the College of Marin in northern California, Turner was ranked as the 96th best shooting guard in his high school graduation year by ESPN, who describe his jump-shot as having “NBA range” in a couple of scouting reports from 2009 and 2010.
The Battle of the Border tournament served as a great opportunity for new and veteran Dinos alike to get some court time far in advance of their Nov. 1 regular season opener against the Trinity Western Spartans. They are coming off a 13–9 season in 2012–13 in which their playoff hopes were dashed due to a loss in their final game of the year against the University of Lethbridge.
“Had we won that game we would’ve had a different tale to tell,” said Vanhooren. “As it turned out, we didn’t. My expectations are to make the playoffs and give these kids the experience that they need and then just see where the cards fall this year.”
While Vanhooren may have a long-term roadmap for this season and beyond, the players are focused on taking the season game by game.
“For our team it’s about weekly and monthly expectations,” said Ogungbemi-Jackson. “I’m hoping and praying to God that we stay healthy this year and that everybody is ready to go.”