Bennett’s Breakdown: Anatomy of a Rivalry

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Jan 09, 2015

By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett

The anatomy of a rivalry.

The many rivalries in CIS are equally dispersed across its four conferences, yet one stands tall above the fray because of its simultaneous uniqueness and brilliance. By definition a rivalry is a competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. Based on that definition, men’s basketball in the nation’s capital is a rivalry in its purest form and it’s getting more heated every time the two teams face off. The objective is to be the best in the country, and first and foremost to be the best in your city. Right now those two objectives are mutually exclusive. Win the nation’s capital and you’ll likely win the national championship.

An interesting perspective into this rivalry comes from James Derouin. He experienced it as a player and is now one of the ascending coaches in Canadian basketball. Yet despite his success at transforming Ottawa’s program, when I told someone I was profiling Ottawa’s coach, they immediately assumed I was referring to Dave Smart. Such is the shadow you exist in when you are involved in basketball in Ottawa. The headline story in town is almost always the Ravens.

Although they are equals in talent and in the win column, the ledger is far from even. Carleton has won 10 of the last 12 national championships to go with eight OUA titles. In comparison, Ottawa has two OUA championships. Carleton’s success, though, has created the monster that lies in their city. Derouin admits “When you have the other team in your city winning over and over again, and everyone knows it, it drives you like no other. Other schools can be the only game in town and have a solid season and everyone pull for them. We don’t have that luxury, even 53-3 over two years isn’t good enough, that drives you every day”. That Carleton curse cures any chance of complacency for the Gee-Gees program.

Ironically the close proximity and combined strength has allowed both programs to attract NCAA schools to come up in the preseason for competitive exhibition games. They know they’ll face great competition with minimal travel. As many schools have learned, the idea of coming to Ottawa and killing two birds with one stone often ends up with two losses.

The fact that the schools are currently the top two teams in the nation breeds competition. They are a combined 100-0 over the last two years against everyone else in the country besides each other. They are once again ranked 1 and 2 in the nation and will stay that way irrespective of the outcome of their first matchup this week. However, the rivalry began off of the playing surface. It initially started as an outlet for student bodies who lived amongst each other and wanted to exercise their passion for their respective schools. According to Derouin, “The rivalry really got going during the era where there was no football at Carleton, so fans were really looking for an outlet to replace the Panda game which had become the poster game for rivalries. The fact that the two teams are in the same city, the fact that they are both strong teams year after year has to make the rivalry pretty special.”

The market inefficiency of not having a rival football game to cheer at is no longer void as the Ravens have football back and this fall completed their second season since their rebirth. The football programs can only hope their rivalry rivals the one that has been developed between the schools’ basketball teams.

The combatants in the Bytown battle are polar opposites. Styles make fights and it helps the narrative that both programs are incredibly different. Derouin looks like he was plucked out of a GQ spread, placed on the sideline with his finely tailored suits and stoic demeanour. Smart, on the other hand, looks like the last thing on his mind pre-game is his attire – he’s constantly working his dry erase board and continuing to teach, using the sleeve of his blazer to erase his marker instructions if a towel isn’t readily available.

That negotiation between style and substance manifests itself on the court. As the teams take the floor you can’t help but notice the Gee-Gees are all hip hop while the Ravens are all business. As Ottawa players dance and cheer in the pre-game celebration circle, Carleton players look like there is nothing to celebrate – they are subdued, almost as if sedated. The Ravens approach every game with steely intensity. It carries over into the way they play. Ottawa, on the other hand, plays with fluidity and self expression that gives the impression that plays are just suggested guidelines. The Ravens are more apt to colour in the lines. The focus of everything done offensively is to get the best match-up and exploit it with an efficiency that forces the opponent to react, rotate and yield another advantageous match-up. Different strokes for very different folks but those divergent paths get them to the same place, the top. I can’t imagine either club’s culture being successful any other way.

For years, the thought of the two schools being bitter rivals was as one-sided as the outcomes were. Like every other school, Ottawa was dominated by Carleton. Yet the big brother Ravens have had to take the little brother Gee-Gees increasingly seriously in recent years as Ottawa has become increasingly successful. Although they’ve long played Carleton tough and sporadically beat them, the crowning of the Gee-Gees comeback came when Ottawa upset Carleton in the 2014 Wilson Cup, Johnny Berhanemeskel’s buzzer-beater instantly became the biggest shot in program history. Although Ottawa wrestled away a conference championship banner, Carleton held serve and maintained their stranglehold on national titles a week later, beating the Gee-Gees in the CIS championship final.

Yet, two teams in the finals from the same city in a tournament held in the nation’s capital underscored the fact that Ottawa is the capital of collegiate basketball in Canada.

Although their success and profile affords them the ability to recruit nationally, both teams still boast three players from Ottawa. The pipeline of rotation players from the nation’s capital is one of the keys to the programs’ sustained successes. The Ottawa high school and club circuits are among the most dense in talent per capita in the country. “The teams here are still focused on teaching and helping players learn how to play the right way and there is less focus on exposure and individual play, like maybe in some of the other areas,” Derouin says.

The hometown benefit has snowballed over time, with aspiring generations of Ottawa area players who want to play for one of their hometown universities. Derouin boasts “I would like to think that the two strong CIS programs have also helped fuel the grass roots programs in the area. Seeing the two teams succeed can only help with the growth of the sport locally.” If you win the Bytown battle, you also win the recruiting battle.

In fact, aside from on-court success and a long list of alums who went on to play pro, the best advertisement for prospective recruits is the spectacle around the Capital Hoops Classic and the guarantee that you’re going to play in multiple games with playoff like atmospheres in the regular season without having to leave your area code. “Anyone who plays sports or follows sports, loves a rivalry. Even more exciting if you can be a part of that rivalry. There’s no question that it has helped both teams, especially the show case game at Capital Hoops,” says Derouin. The 2015 incarnation of the rivalry starts this weekend at Montpetit Hall. With the change in the OUA divisional alignment and playoff structure due to the league’s expansion, the outcome of the Ottawa home-and-away series will most likely determine who hosts the OUA finals this year, a new wrinkle that will add to the stakes in what is already a contentious matchup with little margin of error.

The bell rings for round one of a possible four Saturday night.

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett

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