“45 seconds away from 3-2” is a reasonable refrain that the still-young and maturing U of T Varsity Blues can repeat to themselves over the Holidays after a promising first-half during which Toronto was “that” close to taking two games – on the road no less – against perennial Top 10 competition. Unfortunately, youthful inexperience resulted in some lack of execution at ultra-key moments and a 1-4 OUA mark that has left a sour taste but the confidence that the Blues are “getting close”.
Injuries have played a large roll in stalling Toronto’s first-half progress as Coach John Campbell rarely had his projected rotation in place what with the early-season injury to 6’5″ Devin Johnson, one of the top players in the OUA followed by the loss to concussions of starter 6’10” Miro Jaksic and sweet shooting 6’5″ wing Nicola Paradina, who was coming off the bench. Maybe the biggest loss, given his expected experience, savvy and mental toughness, was 6’6″ Justin Boutilier, a former AUS All-Star at Acadia who tried to come back from a major knee problem but the injury was simply too difficult to return from and Campbell’s projected quality 4 man had to retire.
Youth also has been a large contributor to inconsistency and an inability to close games and/or key possessions: Toronto has 8 players in their first or second seasons – virtually all of who can now or eventually be counted upon for meaningful minutes, led by 6’3″ sophomore point guard Sage Usher, who is learning to be a lead guard on the fly. 6’2″ Devon Williams, a key American recruit who was teammates with Usher at Worchester Academy, gives the Blues a legitimate 3 point threat – he single-handidly got Varsity back in the game at Ryerson on the opening night of the regular season with 23 points including 7 for 15 from 3 – all 3’s after halftime. Williams was coming off a tournament all-star performance at Carleton’s House-Laughton tournament (the diminutive guard went 6 for 9 with 26 points against Bishop’s and shot 11 for 20 from 3 from the tournament overall). But given his youth, he has had some rough games and continues to learn what it means to defend and compete at this level.
The slick Johnson, with an array of inside and out offensive skills, missed much of the pre-season but has turned it on in league play offensively – he had 34 against Windsor which was a career-high. His leadership abilities will get to the next level as he makes a stronger commitment at the defensive end. 6’7″ Swedish import forward Daniel Johansson has been getting more time up front in the absence of Boutilier. 6’3″ Manny Sahota competes and is a streaky shooter/offensive finisher and a solid, complementary piece to build around. Jaksic has a chance to shine with his skill set as a big while 6’9″ freshman Nick Morris, who prepped for one season at New Hampton school after playing at Toronto Crescent, is another rising impact guy. Crescent School is coached by former CIS player Ari Hunter (McGill) and has been producing its fair share of next-level players.
Watching this group on several occasions, it is evident that many of the basic pieces are in place and this group will grow when the young players learn about what it means to compete at this level.
I recall about 10 years ago the development of a then-reeling Western Mustangs program – led by a new Coach struggling to make the playoffs who brought in one of his first recruiting classes, ultimately led by a lightly-recruited and much-maligned (early in his career) point guard plus a decent group of young recruits that struggled in their first 2-3 years together before staying together and learning to win. That group, led by Hamilton-native point guard Matt Curtis, grew to a Nationals contender that was one possession away from knocking off #1 Carleton in the Final 8 semi-finals in 2009. There are noted similarities between that group and the present-day Blues; expect Toronto to keep getting better.