Men’s basketball demands respect

‘No reason to be surprised’ about team’s turnaround, coach says

Jordan Balaban (left) and Ryan Hairsine scrimmage at practice on Wednesday.
Jordan Balaban (left) and Ryan Hairsine scrimmage at practice on Wednesday.
Photo by Anne Kloosterman
Simon Mitchell manoeuvres the ball at practice Wednesday.
Simon Mitchell manoeuvres the ball at practice Wednesday.

It’s a wonder the men’s basketball team doesn’t have an inferiority complex. Between years of disparaging comments about their dysfunctional offence and mediocre showings, and their failure to ever crack the national top ten, no one would blame them for getting down on themselves.

But the results so far this year indicate their self-esteem is alive and kicking. Or perhaps we should
say shooting. In fact, head coach Rob Smart is annoyed by the recent praise for his team because almost all of it has been accompanied by expressions of disbelief.

“I sort of feel like, to some extent, there have been too many excuses for Queen’s not doing well.”
Smart said there’s no reason for anyone to be surprised by the improvement of the men’s basketball program. With a record of 9-5, Queen’s currently sits third in eastern Ontario, up from seventh at the end of last season.

Through the preseason and the regular season, Queen’s is 4-4 against top ten teams. The Gaels are also the only team this season to beat the seventh-ranked Gee-Gees in Ottawa.

“There’s sort of an attitude that we’re doing really well for a Queen’s team, which I don’t really like,” he said. “We should be trying to win national championships.” In terms of game plan, both player and
coach alike say little has changed since last year. The plan is just beginning to come together.
“I don’t think we approached [this season] any differently,” Smart said. He said he was constantly being told last year to scrap his offensive system because it wasn’t working. Now, no one can stop talking about it. “People keep saying how great the offence is, but we used the same one last year.” He said the system he chose to implement last year is different from what most other teams in the province are doing, and it took a little getting used to. “The system we play is pretty complex, and I think it’s taken some time to learn and some time to get comfortable with it.” Fourth-year player Jordan Balaban said the team is often dismissed because of its lacklustre history. “Queen’s has been a joke as long as the basketball program has been around.” But he said he sees it as an opportunity to silence the naysayers. “I take it as motivation,” he said. “Everybody loves a dark horse. It’s fun to play that role.” He said the biggest difference between this year and last is just the level of confidence and experience each player brings with him. “We’ve been a relatively young team before. Now we’ve got some guys on the team with experience, a bit of leadership.”

Even the first-year players have brought more to the gym than the average rookies usually do. The team’s leading scorer, rookie forward Mitch Leger, played five years in high school before joining the team, and point guard Baris Ondul played for a year at Georgian College before coming to Queen’s.
Smart said the attitude of the seemingly unflappable rookies has rubbed off on the rest of the team. He added that it’s rare to have two players who add as much to the team as these two. “They just don’t seem to have any real fear of losing. They just go in and get it done, and as a result, we’ve been much more successful.” He also said that just getting time on the court has a big impact on a new player’s development. “I think kids’ being confident at the university level is just about giving them the opportunities. That’s something you get at Queen’s more than at other schools.” Smart said that, in most cases, 11 of the 12 players dressed will see at least 10 minutes of court time.

Despite the recent praise, Smart said he still takes some flak for his slightly unorthodox coaching methods. “I don’t do a lot of things people say I should.” He said team meetings typically last anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds, and he doesn’t go into the huddle on any timeout he didn’t call himself. “If I had something to say, I would have called the timeout,” he said. “The kids know what
they’re doing.” He’s also known for pointing out a player’s weaknesses without necessarily praising his strengths. "Most of the things I say to individuals, I say in front of the team whether they’re positive
or negative.” He said he doesn’t see the benefit of softening the blow. “I think you can improve on the
things you know you don’t do well. To dwell on excuses is ridiculous.” But his players seem to appreciate his style.

Rob Shaw, ArtSci ’08, said the previous head coach, Chris Oliver, had a tendency to micromanage
every aspect of team life, especially while they were on the road. He said Smart is a lot more relaxed.
But he joked that playing for Smart has, on occasion, been a little too far in the opposite direction.
“[On the road] I don’t always know where I’m supposed to be.” Balaban agreed, adding, “But it’s a lot more fun playing under this system.” He said Smart encourages players to develop their ability to react to different situations rather than teaching them to execute set plays the same way every time. Leger said Smart’s attitude toward the team’s success has been a source of motivation. “He tells us that all we’ve done is been better than Queen’s has been in the past, and if that’s good enough for us, that’s not really good,” he said, adding that the team appreciates that Smart refuses to sugar-coat anything. “You can tell that he’s there to win, and as a player, that’s all you can really ask for.”
For a guy who’s reputed to focus only on the negative, Smart has a remarkably positive outlook
on the future. “The bottom line is, other than Carleton, every other team we’ve played in the top ten we’ve either played close or beaten.”

When the game in Ottawa last weekend was labelled an upset, Ondul was quick to defend his team, saying they went in knowing they could come out on top. “We still don’t get the respect we deserve,” he said.

Smart attributes the win to the shift in attitude.

“We no longer play like we’re trying not to lose.” He said if the team can continue to climb the ranks, it will become easier for Queen’s to build the program and harder for outsiders to make excuses.

“It’s getting easier to convince kids that Queen’s is a good place to play basketball.”

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