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Raptors' influence dominates as Carleton snags 5th-straight CIS title

Ottawa's two universities battled for the CIS Basketball throne on Sunday. And while the Carleton juggernaut added to its historic title run, it was Toronto's love of basketball that drew the most attention.

Eventual CIS Champion Carleton plays a pre-season game against Syracuse.
Eventual CIS Champion Carleton plays a pre-season game against Syracuse.
Rich Barnes/Getty Images

The last two Raptors seasons have given a rebirth to Toronto's love affair with basketball. It was prevalent during the Vince Carter years, and even made an appearance for a year or two in the Chris Bosh / Sam Mitchell era, but the success of the Raptors since the Rudy Gay trade has helped establish the ground work for a city-sport relationship that could stand the test of time.

This weekend at the CIS Men's Final 8 proved that.

For a tournament that has been dominated by the Ravens of Carleton University for more than a decade (solidified with a 93-46 blowout of Ottawa on Sunday making it 11 titles in 13 years), the buzz in the city during the four-day event was impressive - and proved that the NBA isn't the only level of the sport that Toronto's hoops-heads will consume.

"To be honest with you, with two Ottawa teams playing [in the Final] in Toronto, I was surprised they filled the place as much as they did," said Tim Micallef, who called the semi-finals and championship game for Sportsnet.

The tournament wasn't free of the Raptors' city-wide shadow though:

In addition to Zach Lowe's favourite mascot, a slew of Raptors players took in the action, including Greivis Vasquez, James Johnson and, of course, Bruno Caboclo - who had is name chanted despite there being no chance of him collecting any garbage time minutes.

The investment made by Toronto's NBA team didn't go unnoticed by Ryerson head coach Roy Rana.

"It was great to see the Raptors here, representing their city and supporting their community," he said after his team received its bronze medals.

"It thought it was great for the Toronto basketball community ... It was a real celebration for these kids who choose to stay home and play at this level."

Electricity abounded throughout the Mattamy Athletic Centre all weekend long. It began with the Bishop's Gaiters near upset of the favoured eventual-finalist University of Ottawa on Thursday and hit its crescendo when the hometown Rams trailed Ottawa by a mere possession with four minutes to play during Saturday's semi.

On top of the energy provided by the obliterated students fans, the cavalcade of media members - many of whom would normally patrol the media pit at the Air Canada Centre - gave the tournament a validity and online presence that, according to Micallef, hasn't been on display at its previous renditions.

The media was unmatched out of any [tournament] that I've been too. All the national basketball writers in this country were here - and I thought it lent to the atmosphere ... I think Toronto and Ryerson did a fantastic job of making sure that this place had an atmosphere for our National Championship.

After such a resounding success in Toronto, the challenge for the CIS will be to manufacture the same amount of hype for the 2016 Final 8 at UBC in Vancouver - the first time the season finale will make it's way west of Ontario since 1980.

Building excitement in a hoops-crazed city like Toronto is one thing - but making a dent in the hockey-mad western provinces won't be quite so easy.

What may be the most pressing issue facing Canadian university athletics is the lack of recognizable names - names that viewers can envision rooting for at a higher level of competition. It's been common practice for the top players in CIS basketball to play overseas (see former Carleton star Tyson Hinz). But very few have ever been able to grab so much as a cup of coffee in the NBA, or hell, even a Summer League invite.

Five-time CIS champ and Final 8 MVP Phil Scrubb has an outside chance of bucking the trend though. Rana, who watched Scrubb put up a gaudy tournament stat line of 29.3 points, 8.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds on 63.6% shooting from three, said that while the road may be challenging, Scrubb has one skill that could carry him to the sport's highest level.

"He has a future in pro ball, there's no question about that," said the Ryerson coach. "Hopefully a team falls in love with him and is willing to invest some time and continue to develop his game, and if they do I think he's got a chance."

"He's certainly an NBA shooter."

We won't know until next year whether the excitement surrounding this year's Final 8 was solely created by the presence of the Raptors and the thirst for the sport that exists in Toronto.

But with the potential for Scrubb to scratch is way onto an NBA roster, and the enhanced national media attention, we may be on the verge of Canadian college basketball gaining recognition across the country.