Basketball border hopping

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island-sports-news-feature

by Lachlan Ross

March 29, 2014 (ISN) – Zac Andrus may not have realized it in 2009, but he was starting a new trend for the University of Victoria Vikes.

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The five-foot-11 point guard from Vashon Island, Washington, had maxed out his two year playing eligibility with Whatcom Community College and needed a new team. Like most other junior college players in the States, Andrus’ goal had been a division one college at the end of his time at Whatcom. Also like many players at the end of a two-year program, the offers Andrus wanted weren’t there.

As Canadian basketball players flock south for post-secondary play, it has become more commonplace for universities here to take one, two, or even three American imports. When Canadians head south, there’s talk of competition and facilities unmatched back home. When an American import joins the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), focus seems to be placed on how that player can impact championship contention. Less often mentioned are the opportunities for an American athlete coming to play ball in Canada.

UVic had ignored the growing trend of American imports throughout the CIS in recent years, housing predominantly Vancouver Island and British Columbian talent. But in coach Craig Beaucamp’s 12 years at the school, the Canada West division grew from four teams – University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser, UVic, and Trinity Western – to eight. Between the new fad of American prep schools drawing Canadian talent, and the extra CIS squads spreading a diminished player pool, it was time to follow other teams’ American lead.

Coach Beaucamp had the chance to watch Andrus play when the Vikes scrimmaged Whatcom College over the 2008 Christmas break. Upon graduation, Andrus looked at NCAA Division II schools in Oregon and Washington, but was drawn to UVic by the red and white championship banners that hang in McKinnon Gym from the Ken Shields era. As a strong student, Andrus also found UVic’s business program enticing. Most of all, the fifth year of playing eligibility had Andrus’ attention. The ability to ferry home to Vashon Island for breaks in school and basketball was the cherry on top.

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In Canada, varsity athletes are allowed an extra year of play compared to the four given to American students. Furthermore, the Canadian system is more lenient, only counting years of varsity sport against the student-athlete’s limit. In the States each year of enrolment at a post-secondary institution strikes against athletic eligibility, meaning there are thousands of aspiring athletes ruled ineligible despite only competing for one or two years.

“When I was growing up in high school I never thought about coming to Canada for basketball,” says Andrus. “I didn’t even know if they had basketball up here,” he adds laughing. Despite his quiet demeanor, Andrus assumed he would dominate play north of the border – and then he arrived. “It was a different brand of basketball for sure, I don’t know if it’s the hockey background, but it seemed more physical. Guys are big in the States, but in Canada they just play a bit rougher. They don’t play dirty, but they’ll get under your skin a bit more.”

Weaving through taller defenders with a quick first step and the body control to contort layups at the hoop, Andrus was solid in his first season. He didn’t dominate play, but led his team as starting point guard with poise and the ability to attack the basket around anyone when required.

In his second year at UVic, Andrus didn’t meet his expectations – splitting court time and often losing his starting spot to senior guard Jeff Spoor. He says this cemented his decision to choose Canada, giving him that extra season. “I think there’s that bit of pressure because obviously they only have a couple of import spots so they’re expecting you to come in and produce… I definitely wanted to play that final year to prove that I could compete at this level.”

During Andrus’ fifth and final year of eligibility, UVic went 14-4 in conference play to secure first seed in the Canada West. Starting all 18 games, he produced points, rebounds, assists, steals, and a deadly three-point shot to go along with his crafty layups in the lane.

In three years with the Vikes, Andrus helped lead them back to Canada West contention. A summer of studies later, he completed a Bachelor of Commerce with a focus on International Business. Now Andrus is the Vikes Athletics Marketing and Campus Engagement Coordinator, promoting events like the basketball games he used to play in.

While recruiting the Vashon Island point guard worked well for coach Beaucamp and the Vikes, it has also provided Andrus with academic and professional opportunities to succeed off the court.

Beaucamp compares the Canada West division’s growth to professional leagues like the NHL and NBA, which after sprouting new franchises have begun including several international players on their rosters. “One of the things we’ve wanted to do obviously is maintain the quality of basketball,” he says. “As we’ve expanded in the Canada West you’ve had to look at different ways to bring in top-level talent.” Since Andrus’ successful contribution to the Vikes, a link with the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges (NWAACC or “En-Wack”) was established. Beaucamp continued recruiting American players from close to the BC border and going into the 2011-12 season – Andrus’ final year – he was joined by Yakima Valley Community College’s Terrell Evans.

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Originally from Las Vegas, Evans played two years of junior college basketball in the small city of Yakima, Central Washington. After a standout second season with the college, including All-Tournament First Team selection at the NWAACC championships, Evans chose Canada over several NCAA Division II offers.

Drawn north by a desire to learn international FIBA rules – such as a 24-second shot clock instead of American college’s 35 – Evans wanted to prepare for a dream of playing professionally abroad. On top of that, the fifth year of eligibility would give him an extra season to impress scouts. And that is exactly what happened. Evans propelled from a strong fourth year to a standout fifth, taking his team to a final four finish at CIS National Championships – UVic’s best season since a silver medal in 2006 – and was named a First Team All-Canadian. This added year of post-secondary basketball for Evans will likely be the difference between chasing a professional contract abroad and landing one.

“You really don’t know what’s going to be the outcome going from the U.S. to Canada,” he says. “Your destination or what you want to get out of it, it’s roulette. But that extra year helped me get to where I want to be to make my dreams come true.”

Evans finished the 2013-14 season dominating the Canada West division and leading his Vikes in almost every statistical category. Known to dart through defenders in the open court and torment oversized forwards with his speed, he finished fourth in the conference in points per game with 17.9, ninth in rebounding with 7.2, and second in three-point accuracy at 45-percent.

While coach Beaucamp commends the efforts of Andrus and Evans to assert their personalities and skills into the Victorian community, Evans feels it’s the community that has helped him. There is no questioning his tireless work ethic and motor on the hardwood, but he praises the Canadian culture for his fifth year play.

“It turned my whole outlook and perspective of life, which translates to a better understanding on the basketball court,” says Evans. He keeps a colourful hand drawn poster on his living room mantle – a gift from kids after a Vikes win. The white cardboard sheet shows swords, shields, and thunderbolts sketched around three words. Go Terrell Go.

As Andrus and Evans received a cultural experience and an extra year of varsity play on the court, coming to Canada also offered university education at a competitive price.

Even with international students paying $16,366 tuition instead of the Canadian $5,058 average price per year, this is still similar – if not cheaper – than school in the States. For a local resident, average tuition at the University of Washington is $12,397, while a slightly cheaper $11,396 is offered at Washington State. But an American resident travelling interstate for post-secondary academics looks at between double and triple that. For instance, a “nonresident” at Oregon State University pays $23,469 tuition and the University of Washington charges $31,971 for Washington newcomers.

“When you look at the cost of education in the States, it’s still quite attractive for US residents and international players to come to Canada for their education,” says coach Beaucamp. Import basketball players often end up paying the same as a domestic student’s $5,000 tuition with their scholarship covering the excess international fees.

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The CIS has seen sprinkles of American talent for decades as Vikings fans may remember First Team All-Canadian Billy Turney-Loos of New Haven, Connecticut, who won UVic’s first National Championship alongside rookie point guard Eli Pasquale in 1980.

But the difference between Turney-Loos and today’s American imports are that coach Shields didn’t recruit him. Turney-Loos decided on Vancouver Island after meeting his wife in Halifax and together choosing Victoria. The same can be said for the late Guy Vetrie – Shields successor as Vikings head coach – who took on Raphael Chillious-Carter in 1997. Chillious-Carter had already graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania when he arrived at UVic for his Master of Education in Coaching Studies and the 1997-98 season. His American eligibility had diminished after being penalized a year for switching schools. Now an assistant coach at the University of Washington, “Coach Chills” 5.4 assists per game in 1998-99 still remain fifth all-time for UVic.

With CIS squads now actively searching for talent below the border, coach Beaucamp can no longer rely on players finding him. What does remain the same as when Turney-Loos and Chillious-Carter came is that coaches still rely on certain circumstances.

There are two main reasons Beaucamp lists for Americans ending up in the CIS; athletes not meeting the stricter restrictions on playing eligibility in the States, and players not fitting a NCAA Division I mould.

For instance, Andrus says his play style and height – five-11 – were both reasons NCAA coaches may have overlooked him. “My game’s not super flashy. I get stuff done, but if you look at me on tape I’m not going to stand out.” Andrus says his capability to do most things well was hindered by his inability to dominate at any particular skill. As leadership on the court being his biggest strength, “that’s harder to see on film than it is in person,” he says. “A lot of people are just going to see your film.”

Evans plays a hybrid guard-forward role – known as a “tweener” – and excels at it. Unfortunately, coaches can often be scared off because that in-between style doesn’t fit a category. When asked by their program to recruit a specific player type, many coaches won’t risk taking a guy who strays from the historic positions. For Evans it has been this ability to create mismatches with his size and strength at guard or quickness in the post that has helped him dominate opponents in the CIS.

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As Andrus now sits behind his Vikes Recreation desk and Evans awaits offers from European pro leagues, Marcus Tibbs – who joined the team from Seattle at the start of the 2013-14 season – will continue the Vikes American tradition. Already impacting the league as UVic’s starting point guard, Tibbs is being allowed a second chance at playing the game after expiring his American eligibility.

The University of Victoria is now five years into a new generation of CIS recruitment and it seems the trend will outlast most others. When a ferry to Seattle or Port Angeles – where they have a junior college team – is the same distance as Vancouver, it is hard to overlook their talent pool. Beaucamp still works to include as many players as possible from Victoria and the Island and says, “I don’t think there’s any one particular recipe you have to have for success… but Washington State is pretty close proximity and we’d be crazy not to look south of the border.”

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