OUA East Men’s Basketball Preview: Heirs to the Throne?

HAMILTON, ON – The last time a U SPORTS men’s basketball game was played – on March 8th, 2020, less than a week before Canada started to shut down – the Carleton Ravens ended up soaking themselves in celebration after fending off the Dalhousie Tigers in a razor-thin match that went down to wire. “A crazy ride,” Ravens head coach Taffe Charles called it in the press conference afterwards

During that press conference, Charles remembered the journey he took to get to that pinnacle. He remembered winning his first national championship as an assistant coach to then-head coach Dave Smart in 2002-03. “I remember telling Dave [Smart], ‘I got a ring. We’re never getting one of these again.’ It was so difficult,” Charles recalled. 

Now he’s won two Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championships and a national championship as the head coach of Carleton’s women’s program and an OUA and national title as the head coach of the men’s one. A year and a half later, as the OUA returns to action, Charles and the Ravens will embark on defending their OUA and national crown. However, there will be challengers. 

Yes, the usual suspects include Ottawa and the Rams, but as seen before other teams like Laurentian have been able to challenge them to varying degrees. Within their division, the Queen’s Gaels are always a solid test and the Nipissing Lakers and Ontario Tech Ridgebacks look to continue to progress under third-year coaches Thomas Cory and Greg Francis. Toronto and York look to bounce back after the 2019-20 season saw them finish bottom of the then-OUA Central Division with five and three wins respectively. Given how the divisions have changed once again, this also means that the Ravens, Gee-Gees and Rams are once again reunited. In the East division, the traditional powers look to remain strong but who will push them? 

With the two-year turnaround, there are many familiar faces gone – including Gray and numerous key players from Carleton and other teams. However, many veterans have returned and are joined by two rookie classes and numerous transfers. Will this OUA East season provide the twists and turns as the last few have? Will it provide more epic games like those of the past? Will it produce a player as dominate as Gray? Will it end up like it has many times before, with Carleton and Charles smiling in light of another OUA and national title triumph? That all remains to be seen. 

Lloyd Pandi (Photo: Valerie Wutti/Carleton Ravens)

Carleton Ravens 

Preseason Record: 6-1

The Ravens lost a number of key players (Yasiin Joseph, Marcus Anderson, Munis Tutu, TJ Lall and others) but do still bring back quite a few key returnees. Also, Charles will be entering his third season with the team. Three of their notable players are guard Alain Louis, who grew into a bigger role in 2019-20 after not seeing much playing time in his first two seasons. Now, he’s coming off a summer with the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s (CEBL) Ottawa Blackjacks. Fellow CEBL players Grant Shephard, a UBC transfer who was on the famous Canada U19 team that won gold in 2017, and Lloyd Pandi join him. Shephard and Pandi also have experience with the Canadian men’s national team as part of their World Cup qualifiers. “For them to actually be able to get an opportunity and see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel in terms of their competing is massive for them,” Charles told The Charlatan

The Ravens will also be relying on fellow returning players Aiden Warnholtz, Cordell Veira, Connor Vreeken and others. One position to keep an eye on is the centre spot as the Ravens often went small (sometimes with 4-5 guards on the floor) in 2019-20 with Pandi as the centre. The performances and continued development of big men Biniam Ghebrekidan and Ivan Cucak will be important in filling that role. As usual, one of the Ravens key tenants is their stingy defence and the emphasis they place upon it – in Charles’ time with both the men’s and women’s programs. Their force left hand defence – developed under Smart and continued under Charles – remains effective. 

Laurentian Voyageurs 

Preseason Record: 2-2

After a thrilling and memorable career, the Kadre Gray era has finally come to an end in Sudbury. The Toronto guard led the Voyageurs to three winning seasons and two playoff victories as well as capturing three OUA Player of the Year awards to two Mike Moser Memorial trophies (U Sports Player of the Year). The impact Gray has had on Laurentian simply cannot be overstated, helping turn the program into a contender and shining a spotlight on Laurentian men’s basketball. 

Now, head coach (and former Team Canada Olympian) Shawn Swords will look to fill his absence and carry that momentum forward both on the court and in recruiting. Fifth-year guard and former UNB and Seneca College alum Haroun Mohamed has led the team in scoring so far in the preseason. He’s been helped by the likes of third-year guard Jordan Katchunga and second-year forwards Caillou Lacroix and Cedric Mbiabi. Their preseason included a loss to Laurier, a close defeat to Western and wins against Waterloo and Algoma. 

Nipissing Lakers 

Preseason Record: 1-3

Even since joining the OUA in 2014-15, the Nipissing Lakers have been searching for that consist streak of success. They’ve only make the playoffs once – in 2016-17 including a postseason win over Queens – and are on their second head coach after Chris Cheng left for the Windsor job. Thomas Cory came over from Algoma and guided the team to an 8-14 finish in his first season in 2019-20. Cory has brought in a number of new players in the past two years including transfers Nicholas Gehlen (Algoma) and Muktar Mohamed (Olds College).

One of the biggest potential recruits was one they ultimately couldn’t land. Macedonia junior national team player Kiril Panov initially committed to the Lakers but de-committed due to visa issues. 2019-20 leading scorer Quintin Ashitei has graduated but his sibling Shandon returns along with fellow guard Danny Lukusa. Nipissing will look the next step forward in the third year of Cory’s tenure. 

Graddy Kanku (Photo: Al Fournier/Ontario Ridgebacks)

Ontario Tech Ridgebacks 

Preseason Record: 2-4 

The OUA’s newcomers in 2019-20 have nowhere to go but up – at least record-wise. The program notched their first win in program history – 67-64 over Algoma – and have found a budding star in Graddy Kanku. The Ottawa native finished with OUA All-Rookie team honours and led the Ridgebacks in points and assists. He was also part of the CEBL’s Ottawa Blackjacks this past offseason. Kanku is an explosive scorer who’s shown he’s able to put up big points in numerous games, even as an OUA rookie. He and third-year head coach Greg Francis will have some help. Such is a benefit of having a new program with a number of then first-and-second year players returning, including guard Andrade Junior Cummings as well as fourth-year York transfer and leading rebounder Ammar Hassan. 

Ontario Tech made history once again this fall, beating the McMaster Marauders and then the Concordia Stingers for their first preseason victories in program history. The encouraging thing about those victories? They did it without Kanku and second-year guard Ba-Amara Ajame. Instead, it was a balanced scoring effort led by Hassan (who notched a double-double), former Carleton Raven Anthony Pate and first-year guard Tesloch Luk (from Canada Topflight Academy). Can the Ridgebacks carry the momentum of those wins to more success in 2020-21. It certainly seems they’re capable – with or without Kanku. 

Ottawa Gee-Gees 

Preseason Record: 6-0

For the last number of years, head coach James Derouin’s Gee-Gees have been that almost team – Carleton’s pesky sibling. Ottawa has experienced it’s fair share of wins and accolades in Derouin’s time with an OUA title (in 2014) and a couple of national championship final defeats (also to Carleton). 

Like the Ravens, the Gee-Gees will be missing some important contributors from 2019-20. Most notable are veterans Calvin Epistola and Sean Stoqua for both their play on the court and the leadership on and off it as well. Guillaume Pepin – fresh off his stint with the Blackjacks – leads a core of returning veterans including guards Borys Minger, former Raven Elie Karojo, Gage Sebean and floor general Kevin Civil. Northeastern transfer Maxime Boursiquot and fifth-year senior Marlon Kordrostami provide a formidable presence inside. One of many bright spots of note in the Gee-Gees 6-0 preseason over Quebec opponents is the play of freshman guard Quincy Louis-Jean. 

The momentum is building for the Gee-Gees off their nationals appearance in 2019-20 for both the current team and the program and alumni at large. Derouin was named the Blackjacks’ Director of Strategy and Analytics while former Gee-Gees Mike L’Africain and Fabienne Perrin-Blizzard (mother of former Gee-Gees guard Tyra) were also on the coaching staff. Gee-Gees performance coach Joey Kwasniewski also joined the team. Meanwhile, former guard Caleb Agada gained buzz after his strong showing with the Nigerian national team at the Olympics and with the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Summer League. The positive energy so far has carried into the preseason but the real tests will come with those litmus test games against division rivals such as the Rams and the Ravens. 

Cole Syllas (Photo: Stephen Leithwood/Queens Gaels/Brock Badgers)

Queen’s Gaels 

Preseason Record: 4-0

Gaels head coach Stephan Barrie knows the uncontrollable reality his team is in. While the program has remained consistent and is even coming off their best win total (14-8) in 2019-20 since 2007-08 (when Rob Smart Sr was the coach), once again, his team is stuck in the same division with the heavyweights. “The reality of our world is […] we are in a division with three of the top five teams in the country: Carleton, Ottawa, and [X University],” he told the Queen’s Journal. “And a good number of our playoff exits have come when we’ve hit one of those three teams.”

“We haven’t felt like when we’ve gotten to the playoffs that we have underperformed, [we just haven’t] been able to pull off the upset that we’ve needed to pull off,” he added. 

What is promising is what he, the coaches and the players can control: their progression. A 4-0 preseason is a good sign with wins over Quebec opponents. Some of the team’s best players are also the younger ones with brothers Cole and Luka Syllas among them. Cole is the Gaels’ leading scorer this preseason (18.2 points-per-game) while Luka is third (11.0). They are aided by veterans Quinton Gray, a fifth-year OUA Third-team All-Star in 2019-20 who started his collegiate career at Missouri State as well as third-year English guard Cameron Bett, fourth-year forward Connor Keefe and fifth-year forward Henry Van Herk. There is also the development of many of the team’s first-year players that will still unfold as the season – and their careers – go along. Perhaps with this cast of youngster and veterans, Barrie’s team can finally overcome the OUA East powers and take that next step. 

Mouhamed Alga Ndiaye (Photo: Christian Bender/Ryerson Rams Athletics)

The Rams 

Preseason Record: 3-3

For the past decade, the face of the Rams men’s basketball program had been Roy Rana. He had led them to their first OUA title and trips to nationals. He had helped ignite their rivalry with Carleton. After Rana left the program to become the Sacramento Kings assistant coach before the 2019-20 season, the Rams followed that up with a solid campaign but ultimately fell short of Wilson Cup glory and a shot at nationals when they lost to the Gee-Gees in the OUA quarterfinals. 

The program decided to bring in long-time McGill and former Ottawa head coach Dave DeAveiro to replace interim head coach Borko Popic. For DeAveiro, it represents an opportunity to return to coaching in the OUA and a return home personally. “I’m from Toronto, my brother lives here, my parents live here, [and] my son goes to school in Orangeville. This is home for me, this is where our roots are,” DeAveiro told the Eyeopener. He mentioned part of the attraction of coaching at X University was the ability to recruit certain players that he wasn’t able to at McGill. 

The team has brought in some important players since DeAveiro started and have some crucial returning ones as well. Program pillars Tevaun Kokko, Jayden Frederick, Keevon Small and Tanor Ngom are gone but second-year international guards Tom Dumont and Mouhamed Alga Ndiaye return. Dumont, a native of Montreuil, France has increased his scoring, rebounding and assists from 2019-20 so far this preseason. Ndiaye – who moved from Senegal to Longueuil, Quebec at age 11– is coming off a summer spent playing for the Senegal men’s national team at Afrobasket 2021. With the national team, he got to experience playing with and against professional players and won a bronze medal. “They [the fans] will probably see a more mature player,” he told the Eyeopener. “I’ve worked on my weaknesses, so they will definitely see a different player.” 

One of the team’s biggest additions is their preseason top scorer, third-year guard Marcus Upshaw who was Acadia’s team MVP in 2019-20 and their Rookie of the Year in 2018-19. With a talented team, DeAveiro and the Rams will seek to continue the winning tradition that Rana left behind. 

Toronto Varsity Blues 

Preseason Record: 3-3

When Varsity Blues head coach John Campbell entered the job in 2013, the team was coming off a 3-17 season. Over time, Campbell and the team climbed up the standings year-by-year, with back-to-back winning seasons from 2016-2018 (including a playoff win in 2017 over Lakehead). However, the program has seen their win totals creep back down since then, with Toronto finishing 5-17 in 2019-20. Campbell’s coaching staff has received a boost heading into this season. Assistant coach (and former team captain) Mike De Giorgio gained experience as part of the Hamilton Honey Badgers coaching staff this past season. The program also brought in former national team player Jevohn Shepherd, who is the current Blackjacks general manager. Campbell has assistant coach Madhev Trivedi returning as well, who was the Brock Badgers head coach in 2018-19 (where he coached them to a 16-8 record and a berth in the OUA semi-final) and is a longtime OUA assistant. 

As for the players on the floor, fourth-year guard Evan Shadkami leads with the way with fellow returnees Anthony Torelli, Inaki Alvarez and Anthony Daudu. First-year guard Kalyem Liburd-Mullings has had a strong preseason showing so far, including a career-high 19 points in a win against Windsor. The Varsity Blues have also notched wins against McMaster and Humber College so far in exhibition play with losses to Guelph, Brock and Western. The competition will be tight in the OUA East as this season will provide a telling sign of whether the Varsity Blues will be back on the upswing. 

Prince Kamunga (Photo: Jeremy Zhang/York Lions)

York Lions 

Preseason Record: 0-4

Much like their city rivals the Varsity Blues, the York Lions are also looking to rebound after taking a step back in 2019-20. Fifth-year head coach Nate Phillippe’s squad improved from two to eight wins between his first and second seasons but went down to three victories in 2019-20. 

The Lions bring back 2019-20 team MVP Prince Kamunga, a fourth-year Toronto native who had a breakout 2019-20 campaign, leading the team in scoring and rebounding. He started off his university tenure at Carleton, where he enrolled in hopes of making the Ravens but was told the team was already finalized. “If that’s the path God has for me,” he said in a York yearbook article. “Then that’s okay.” He’s found a home at York, where he’s become the team’s captain and arguably its best player. 

Kamunga won’t be alone in leading the Lions to prominence. While guard DeAndrae Pierre has transferred to Lethbridge, third-year Nigerian forward Somto Dimanochie is back and is currently tops in the team in rebounds this preseason. Veterans Tyler Pryce and Warsame Mohamed will also have significant roles. Mohamed transferred from the Rams and brings championship experience having won the Wilson Cup in 2016-17. He and his teammates will look to create their own successful season at York. 

Players to Watch:

Alain Louis (G) Carleton– Louis is a strong ball handler who can get to the rim and make plays. He played a pivotal role with the Blackjacks and will look to carry that experience forward with him as the main guard for the Ravens, following in the footsteps of former teammates Yasiin Joseph and Munis Tutu. 

Kevin Civil (G) Ottawa- Like his fellow Montreal native Louis (who he played against often growing up), Civil appears on the cusp of having a breakthrough campaign as the point guard for the Gee-Gees team with high aspirations. 

Quinton Gray (G) Queen’s- One of the few OUA all-stars from 2019-20 who returned, Gray looks primed to continue his role as one of the Gaels’ go-to players offensively as he enters his final year of eligibility. 

Aaron Rhooms (F) Rams- The first-year from Lincoln Prep has made an notable impact during the Rams preseason, leading the team with 8.2 rebounds a game and 13.6 points a game, including a career-high 19 points in their loss to Laurier. 

Graddy Kanku (G) Ontario Tech- After an explosive first-year, the question is how high can Kanku’s performance ascend to in year two (technically year three)? Kanku figures to a focal point of the Ridgebacks offence and if he continues to develop, it’s scary to think how good he’ll be in the future. 

Featured Cover Image: Valerie Wutti/Carleton Ravens

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