River Lions ready for stiff challenge
The Niagara River Lions led the Canadian Elite Basketball League in points, steals, blocks, assists and three-point field goal percentage, but none of that matters at this weekend’s Final Four in Saskatoon.
Early in the season, there was lots of disparity between the top teams and bottom teams in the league, but come playoff time the “dis” is gone and there is plenty of parity.
“The quality of basketball player increased as the summer went on,” said River Lions head coach/GM Victor Raso. “Teams bought in guys and in some cases it was because of availability and in some cases there were new coaches in the league and figuring out the talent level was important.”
Raso describes the River Lions’ semifinal opponent, the Hamilton Honey Badgers, as the perfect example of a team that was better by season’s end.
“Although I thought they were really good at the beginning of the year, they took the opposite approach and they blew up their roster right at the end and brought in some super-talented guys,” he said. “They are probably the most-talented team, man-for-man in the league.
“They’re really good, but they haven’t been together for a very long time and they have some serious strengths and some weaknesses.”
Niagara had a 3-1 record during the regular season against the Honey Badgers, including a season-ending 108-94 victory Aug. 14.
“Playing them the last game is tough,” Raso said. “We went into their place and beat them, but you give a team 10 days to regroup and prepare, it doesn’t necessarily bode well. It’s not ideal, especially if a team is super talented.”
Niagara will need to focus on Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a Scarborough native who played scholarship ball with Florida State, and American Ricky Tarrant Jr. a former scholarship player at the University of Memphis. Rathan-Mayes averaged 25 points, four rebounds, three assists and 28 minutes of playing time in three games with Hamilton while Tarrant Jr., in 29 games, averaged 18.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.6 steals.
“We have to do a job on them and they are a very good offensive rebounding team,” Raso said. “We won the boards the last time we played against them and we have to do the same.”
Niagara’s reward for finishing first in the league was a semifinal game against the league’s most-talented squad, but there are no gimmes to be had.
“If we didn’t finish first and placed second, we would face Saskatchewan and they have won five of their last six in Saskatoon,” Raso said. “There’s four really good teams and there is no way around it.”
A big strength of Niagara’s team and one reason for its success was maintaining the same roster.
“We have the same roster this weekend that we had the first four weeks of the year.”
The only changes are Fil Vujadinovic, who was injured early in the year, returning to the lineup in place of Kassius Robertson. After playing in the NBA summer league, the former Missouri Star shut it down because he didn’t want to risk getting hurt after signing with Fortitudo Bologna in the Italian first division (Lega Basket Serie A).
“It is not a long season and continuity is important,” Raso said. “That’s why I did it this way was to have the best chance to win here (Final Four).”
Raso wasn’t the slightest bit interested in any late-season, high-profile acquisitions.
“I didn’t want to do that just because I am a big believer in it being a team sport and if you want to bring in a superstar right near the end what does that do to the other nine guys on the team. My approach is this and I wouldn’t change it.”
The River Lions left for Saskatoon Wednesday morning and will have practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before Saturday’s semifinal. Raso knows that practice is important but doing so in the gym where the semifinal is to be contested isn’t in his eyes.
“In my mind, it is overrated because all basketball gyms are the same,” he said. “If you are going into a gym and you can’t shoot because of depth perception, you’re not a good enough shooter to begin with.”
Niagara (15-5) will play Hamilton (10-10) Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon. The winner plays either Saskatchewan or Edmonton in the finals Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern time.
The River Lions are ready to play back-to-back games, having done so already two or three times during the regular season.
“It doesn’t alter our rotation in do-or-die formats and honestly it didn’t for our other games either,” he said. “We are playing our guys and we won’t change it.
“We go nine deep every game.”
Niagara heads into the weekend healthy and ready to roll.
“Everyone is in great health right now,” Raso said, and then rapped a wooden bench with his knuckles.