Once the undisputed sport of choice north of the border, basketball appears to be narrowing the gap with hockey for the love and affection of Canadian sports fans.
For the past three or four years, Ottawa and Carleton universities have hosted exhibitions each Labor Day Weekend against United States NCAA opponents. South Carolina has made the trip in the past. So have Western Carolina and TN-Chattanooga. Current Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin took his Murray State team last year. This year, Louisville and LaSalle will make the trip to Canada's national capital.
"It's been good for us," Ottawa head coach Dave DeAviero said.
Fan support in Eastern Canada appears on the rise. Though his team plays in a 1,000 seat arena, smallish compared to American standards, DeAviero said Ottawa averages 700-800 fans per game. Across town, Carleton University, the four-time defending CIS Canadian national champions, averages about 1,500 fans every game.
"It's really all about hockey up here, but the attitude toward basketball has really started to change," said DeAviero. "We just don't have the population that the United State does or the depth of quality coaching at the youngest levels. But basketball is really starting to catch on up here."
The CIS, Canada's equivalent to the NCAA, doesn't have a national television deal to broadcast basketball games, though many of Ottawa and Carleton's games are shown locally in Ottawa. To fill the void and provide exposure for their hoops program, Ottawa has tapped the power of the Internet, webcasting all of their games on the school's website during the past two seasons.
"It's really been pretty successful," DeAviero said. "The picture on the webcast is pretty good and it allows the parents who don't live in the Ottawa area to watch all of our games."
DeAveiro sounded excited about the prospect of playing Louisville when the Cardinals visit Ottawa later this summer.
"It's an honor to play Louisville," DeAviero said. "When you look at Louisville you're talking about a national powerhouse. We know we're playing one of the top teams in the United States. And everybody up here knows all about Rick Pitino's reputation. We're really looking forward to this opportunity and we'll be ready to play when they come up here."
While DeAviero will welcome back an experienced team that should compete for league and national titles next season, Louisville's Pitino will be using the trip – and the extra practice time – to break in a four-man recruiting class that was generally regarded as one of the best hauls in the nation.
"I think Coach Pitino's using this trip to get his young guys acclimated to his program," DeAviero said. "He'll get 10 days to practice before coming up here, while we'll get five days to practice."
The trip should provide invaluable experience for the Cardinals talented youngsters, including point guard Edgar Sosa, shooting guard Jerry Smith, power forward Derrick Caracter and small forward Earl Clark, before Louisville begins practice for real on Oct. 15 for the 2006-07 season.
Led by Josh-Gibson Bascombe, a 6'3, 175-pound sophomore point guard from Toronto who earned league Rookie of the Year honors last season, Ottawa figures to provide a good test for Pitino's squad.
"We were 18-4 in our league last year and were ranked as high as No. 2," explained DeAviero. "But we lost in the conference semifinals and only the top two teams from each league make the national tournament. So we missed the national tournament last season."
With restrictions on athletic scholarships – Ottawa can only award $3,500 per year on their scholarship athletes – fielding a nationally competitive program at Ottawa can be challenging. However, DeAviero said his program have overcome those limitations by recruiting solid student-athletes from Canada's largest city, Toronto.
"Our conference is considered to be like the Ivy League," DeAviero said. "It's really more academically focused than the schools in western Canada."
DeAveiro is also familiar with Kentucky's affection toward the roundball. Ottawa made the trip to Kentucky last year for a pair of games against Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State. The Gee-Gee's split on their trip to the Bluegrass, defeating EKU, while falling to the Eagles.
"They were both very competitive games," he said.
Though he might not have the next Steve Nash on his roster, DeAviero hopes playing Louisville and LaSalle this September will provide his team an additional boost next season.