By Jim Hynes
They say exhibition games don’t really count. But don’t tell that to the McGill Redmen basketball team. After three solid Labour Day weekend performances against top-tier opponents from the United States, including an historic win against the University of Virginia Cavaliers on Sunday, Aug. 31, coach Craig Norman’s squad can start the regular season knowing they can compete with college basketball’s finest.
With six players from the 2007-2008 team (that finished with an overall record of 15-16) lost to graduation, and five first-year players on the 2008-2009 roster, it’s difficult to predict how much success this year’s Redmen will enjoy. But if the team’s pre-season performance against three NCAA Division 1 teams is any indication, Norman has every right to feel hopeful about his team’s chances.
Opponents just don’t get any more formidable than McGill’s first of the year – the defending NCAA champion Kansas Jayhawks, who met the Redmen at the University of Ottawa Saturday, Aug. 30. Seniors Sean Anthony and Moustafa El Zanaty, each with 14 points, led the charge for the Redmen, who actually led 17-4 six minutes into the game and trailed by as little as three points with nine seconds remaining before eventually going down by a score of 72-67.
The next day, the Redmen had a morning match-up with the mighty Virginia Cavaliers of the NCAA Atlantic Coast Conference at McGill’s Love Competition Hall. Led once again by an inspired El Zanaty, whose game high 30 points included six-three-pointers, the Redmen surprised the Cavaliers 88-83. It was McGill’s first basketball win over an NCAA Division 1 team in 23 years.
No rest for the triumphant though, as the Redmen headed back onto the McGill hardwood against the Northeastern University Huskies on Monday. Despite another incredible performance by El Zanaty (31 points, including a McGill record 20 points in the first quarter), the Redmen fell 87-73.
Norman said the real point of the pre-season games was to evaluate the team’s off-season training program and to see how cohesive his group of players was.
“Considering how we fared in our pre-season games against NCAA teams a year ago, I thought we could compete,” Norman said. “I stressed to the team that the benefits of playing these NCAA guys would show up down the road. When you play teams of that calibre you need to execute the small things that sometimes get overlooked. Down the road when we are facing pressure situations we will know that we can compete under adverse ands extreme pressure,” he said. “If we can deal with these teams, we are confident that we can deal with teams at the CIS level.”
As for what the games told him about his own squad, Norman came away impressed by their mental toughness and the cohesiveness of their play. “I learned we have the potential to be pretty darned good,” he said. “We need to improve our communication on the court, develop our young guys, and compete on all possessions for 40 minutes of every game. If we can do all these things we could have the makings of a special group.”
The Redmen now spend the rest of September fine-tuning their game before taking on visiting Lethbridge (Oct. 9) and St. Francis Xavier (Oct. 12) in a pair of non-conference contests.
Notes from the field, pitch, diamond: Redmen QB Matt Connell broke the CIS record for career completions in a losing effort to the Sherbrooke Vert et Or in McGill’s conference football season opener last Saturday. He entered the game needing only five completions to break the record of 611 set by Calgary QB Greg Vavra in 1983 and ended the day with 35. Redmen Kicker Austin Anderson made all five of his field goal attempts in the 45-17 defeat. The McGill rugby Martlets won the 4th annual Kelly Anne-Drummond Cup, beating Concordia 14-10 on Sunday, while their Redmen counterparts routed Bishop’s 48-0 in their Quebec University Rugby League season opener in Lennoxville Friday. The baseball Redbirds started their season in style, splitting a double header with Concordia Saturday, then taking both ends of a twin bill against Ottawa Sunday. McGill hosts this year’s Canadian Intercollegiate Baseball Championships Oct.16-18.
Game of the week: The 40th annual Shaughnessy Cup football game between the Redmen and the cross-town rival Concordia Stingers takes place at Molson Stadium Friday, Sept. 12. McGill and Concordia/Loyola, have battled for the cup since it was first presented in 1969.