Madness marched on, but basketball still feeling the sting in Edmonton

Closer to home, where there aren’t quite NCAA Div. 1 resources to help keep COVID-19 in check, courts have sat empty

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The pursuit of perfection may have been the focus of the entire NCAA as March Madness wrapped up this week.

But for the rest of basketball in North America, teams would be happy for the chance to just get back onto a court again.

Renowned Edmonton basketball coach George Hoyt was watching from both sides as the NCAA men’s national championship tournament – which wrapped up Monday with Gonzaga coming oh-so close to completing a perfect season – got underway last month.

The head coach of the high-school provincial powerhouse Harry Ainlay Titans had one of his former players in the hunt, with Aher Uguak and the Loyola University of Chicago Ramblers reaching the Sweet 16.

“With Aher playing down there and having a connection to our Harry Ainlay program and to Edmonton was pretty neat to watch all the games,” said Hoyt, who usually has his team at high-school provincials when Round 1 of March Madness tips off.

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The top prospect out of Alberta following back-to-back provincial championships in 2014-15, the six-foot-seven Uguak took monumental steps in his progression this year in earning all-Missouri Valley Conference third-team, most-improved and all-defensive team honours as part of a Ramblers team that led Div. 1 in averaging just 55.7 points against.

“It’s a very low-scoring league, very grind-orientated. To really stand out is tough,” Hoyt said, applauding Uguak’s academic pursuits at the same time, which have been honours level and will see him earn a masters in marketing on top of a business degree. “We don’t preach to kids enough about how having a role is valued. Most of the time, he is scoring eight to 10 points and taking on the best offensive player on the other team.

“And Ben Krikke in his second year (with Valparaiso University) being recognized as most-improved and (all-MVC third team) is a real credit to Edmonton also.”

With Loyola’s ride ending in a 65-58 loss to Oregon State on March 27, Uguak is considering options to return for another season or potentially go pro.

“I admit that once they got knocked out in the 16, I missed the Round of Eight. It was a bit emotional, I was just so frustrated they didn’t get through,” Hoyt said. “But then I tuned right back in for the Final Four and tuned in (Monday) night with my family. A big part of the house was cheering for Gonzaga, we usually go down for their camp. I had a pretty strong feeling Baylor was going to walk away with it, but I was hoping not as easily as they did.”

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Closer to home, where there aren’t quite NCAA Div. 1 resources to help keep COVID-19 in check, courts have sat empty at all the levels from minor, to high school and on through university.

And that effect has been more difficult for Hoyt to see happen.

“My middle son is in Grade 12 this year and he was a provincial champion last year in football before his basketball season got cut short on the way to a possible provincial championship,” said Hoyt. “And then not to be able to play either this year, it’s been pretty tough around the house. I’m so impressed with how he handles it, he handles it better than me.

“It hurts a lot. Kids are floundering and they want back what they miss, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to get them too much (this spring), especially with the way the (COVID-19) numbers are again right now.”

While the fate of organized sports is in the hands of provincial health regulators, Hoyt said the resiliency he’s seeing from student-athletes has been encouraging.

“It’s a pretty impressive young society that we have how kids are handling it, actually, with such maturity,” he said. “This could be really crash and burn, but most of the young men I’m dealing with, they’re doing really good. They also know there is a bigger picture to it, which is a real credit to them.”

At the same time, Hoyt’s other hat, which he wears as assistant coach with the Edmonton Stingers, gives him the best chance for an early return courtside.

Last summer, the fledgling Canadian Elite Basketball League was first out of the gates among all Canadian pro sports in announcing plans to hold a bubble tournament in St. Catharines, Ont. Dubbed the Summer Series, Hoyt and the Stingers went on to hoist the championship trophy with a dominant display of seven straight wins.

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“When you’ve got a Canadian like Jordan Baker and an American like Xavier Moon, and a Mathieu Kamba and Adika (Peter-McNeilly), we had Brody Clarke coming right from the Bears finishing his (university) career,” said Hoyt, adding everyone treated the opportunity seriously. “As much as Jermaine (Small, head coach) orchestrated getting the group together and I slung a few passes and he came up with a couple plays, the players did the work.”

As for what the 2021 season holds in store, basketball could very well return to Edmonton, at least on the Stingers home floor at The Hive.

“I think there’s going to be basketball,” Hoyt said. “I don’t know how many people are going to get to come watch it …”

E-mail: gmoddejonge@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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