Season 2020-2021

2020-2021 Season Round-up:

By Michael Hofstetter, Cambridge Blues and CUBbC President

The previous season finished just before a nationwide lockdown was announced in late March 2020. All BUCS games as well as the Varsity match in Oxford took place as scheduled. Towards the end of the summer break, the covid situation seemed to relax as cases were down, hospitalisation low, and authorities (government, university, sports centre) were getting optimistic week by week. Nonetheless, the BUCS league for the season 2020/21 was called off for safety reasons, and replaced by the plan to have a local league, i.e. a small number of games against universities nearby. The entire year was denoted a bridging season with no relegation and promotion. Thus, going into the 2020/21 season, the hope was to have at least have regular training sessions, a couple of friendlies and varsity match.

On the collegiate level the situation was likewise uncertain: we planned to have a college league and a cuppers tournament as usual when we had the first committee meeting, but eventually decided to cancel both, as the increase of administrative tasks caused by covid would not have been manageable (risk assessments, potential gym closures, temperature checks of participants, limited number of people on the court, etc). It should be pointed out that this led to huge disappointment across the basketball community within the university.

Compared to the previous season both the Lions and the Blues lost a rather large number of players, and hence, both teams were facing a significant rebuild at the start of the season. Long term servants like Luka Skoric, Aleix Lafita, Jonas Fuksa, Ricard Argelaguet,  Sam Bedell and star player Jordon Bonner from the Blues as well as Andrea Pizzi, Josh Morgan and TJ Booker from the Lions graduated or were unavailable for other reasons.

For try-outs the committee alongside with the coaches Tim Weil and Neb Radic decided to change the format to an invitation-only-session with two groups based on skill to cope with the covid restrictions. Notable intakes were Vittorio Masina, who would play alongside his identical twin brother Riccardo, Michael Magee, a veteran from Australia, who played NCAA Div III, Vikas Vaarma from New Jersey, who was high school captain in the US, Ido-Ben Zvi from Israel, who played at KCL before coming to Cambridge, Ben Bauer from Germany, who played Youth National League there, and Nick Kingsley from the US, who was probably the most complete player that year.

While covid cases steadily went up and everything around us shut down again, CUBbC started training sessions at the university sports centre thanks to an educational sports exception. Everyone enjoyed being back on the court after six months and getting back in shape, as many sports facilities across Europe had been closed. Despite a covid obsession and anxiety emerging again within Cambridge, the basketball club did not share these emotions, but continued to have trainings with close to 100% participation, while strictly following all covid rules that were set by the authorities (temperature checks, lists of attendees, sanitising equipment, one way system in sports centre, no high-fives and no shouting in training, etc.)  It was not the time to question the rules, so we did what we were asked to, in order to get on the court. This went on for about three weeks, until we were also banned from sports, as a nationwide lockdown was announced. There was a constant hope for a soon reopening, but the lockdown was extended multiple times, and the club would not come together before the end of March 2021.

Eventually, the sky cleared, the government presented a road map to get out of the ever lasting lockdown, and club president Michael Hofstetter started setting things up for a return to play. Even though no in-person event happened at the university for almost six months, all but one player indicated that they would be available for training in Easter term. Many players were still in Cambridge, and some would even come all the way back from continental Europe, Australia and the US to get in shape for Varsity. Around the same time discussions with Oxford University started on this matter, and both clubs quickly agreed on starting the organisation of this event backed up by overwhelming support of their male members. So, when training resumed at the end of March, the Blues and Lions were looking at a single game season with less than 8 weeks for preparation. In fact, Oxford Coach Jamie Smith did some research on the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match, traced back many results from previous years, and found that the first game was played in 1921. This suddenly turned this year’s edition into the 100th anniversary Varsity match, which Oxford  promptly advertised through their social media channels.

Dealing with all sorts of obstacles, president Hofstetter managed to secure outdoor courts at Churchill college and St John’s college, where the teams trained for about three weeks. In the mid of May indoor sports were finally allowed and trainings were moved Kelsey Kerridge sports centre where each team had three training sessions per week until Varsity. For a week in between, the club returned to the beloved sports centre, before it would close again for exam period. It was around that time, when two new players joined the Blues: Elias Bresnick from New York, a former team mate of Nick Kingsley and Romain Bucci, an experienced French player who was in Cambridge as visiting student. Even though Romain was not eligible for Varsity, he was always with the team, became an essential part, and as Varsity got closer, filled the role of a mentor and assistant coach (credit to him for game stats of Varsity).

The preparation indoors was highly successful and the participation was much higher compared to a usual season despite many players studying for exams and writing up dissertations. Coach Tim Weil pushed the pace hard in training for about four weeks making sure that the Blues arrive in good shape at Oxford. The Lions were managed by Coach Neb Radic and his son Marko, and Francisco Huhn acted as team captain in absence of Andrea Pizzi, who seemed to have found his love in Munich while being on an academic visit abroad. With at least three sessions a week, we grew as a club with 14 nationalities across 28 members and a unique team spirit was cultivated. Everyone was on the same page about winning Varsity. The Blues had two friendlies in the weeks leading to Varsity – one against CUBbC Old Boys from London with post-match get together on Parker’s piece and one against King’s college London which was organised by Ido Ben-Zvi. Especially in the game against KCL the Blues showed an impressive performance and held the opponent to just three points in the first quarter. Likewise, the Lions had a game against a local side at Kelsey Kerridge, where they cruised to a comfortable win, showed great ball movement and shooting  provided by David Quan, Igarashi Toshiharu and Konstantinos Alexandropolus on the offensive end.

So, going into Varsity, both teams looked strong and there was an intrinsic confidence that the club would pull off two wins on Varsity day. For the first time, there was also an M3 game scheduled for freshers, where, due to the lack of sufficiently many players, CUBbC would play the Lions and Romain Bucci. The Blues decided to travel to Oxford the day before, while the Lions left Cambridge on a bus at 7am on game day together with the women’s club. Unfortunately, the minibus company where the Blues’ travel was booked turned out to be a scam, and so, after an hour of waiting in the rain, the team decided to take two taxis to Oxford.

Lions Varsity Match:

Next day, the blues went for a walk in the morning to bridge the time until their game at 5pm, had a breakfast in Oxford and watched the live stream of the Lions game. This turned out to be rather disappointing from Cambridge’s perspective: despite being close for about three quarters with Oxford throughout leading by 5-8 points, the Lions could not stay within reach in the last minutes of Q3, when Oxford scored back to back three pointers. In this short period, as well as throughout Q4, the Cambridge offence relied too much on David “Keen Dave” Quan, did not play team basketball, and as a result made it easy for Oxford to prevent them from scoring. In Q4, Cambridge tried to play the foul game, but never really got close again, which resulted in a well-deserved win for the Oxford team.

Final result: Oxford 71 – Cambridge 59.

A small side note: shortly after the game, rumours came up that the arguably best Oxford player Ned Checkets being a visiting student did not meet the eligibility criteria to play in the M2 Varsity game. This was never challenged by Cambridge.

Link to Match:

Blues Varsity Match:

The Cambridge losses continued as the day went on: the women lost both games, and also the M3 game went to Oxford despite a strong performance by Romain Bucci and excellent coaching by Francisco Huhn. Hence, it came down to the Blues to save the day for Cambridge. The stakes were high with the Varsity being officially denoted the 100th anniversary edition and an eight-week preparation period being exclusively devoted to just 40 minutes of basketball. So, in hindsight it does not surprise that the Oxford M1 team were up for some playacting and understatement before the game. Like, they would not step on the court until five minutes to tipp-off, but move their warm up to a different hall. Eventually, both teams lined up and, at first glance the Oxford team seemed to be less mature and less experienced across all positions compared to Cambridge. Put in different words, the Cambridge coaches told the team in the final announcement before the game: “These are kids, play hard on them, beat them up, until you’re up 25 points, and then, you keep going. I’ll remind you.”

The game started and things did not go as anticipated beforehand. Oxford started strong, scored the first buckets, played great team basketball and found their rhythm. Cambridge on the other hand had to fight hard for every basket and did not manage to run their plays. Oxford was cruising to a comfortable double digit lead, while Cambridge was struggling to stay within distance. At least they could rely on their shooting from distance with Nick Kingsley and Vittorio Masina hitting some crucial threes and Elias Bresnick’s energetic drives to the basket. His performance in the Varsity game can not be overstated, as he stepped up, when the confidence and belief in the success started to disappear within the team. In their last possession of Q2, Mike Magee with another three pointer cut the lead down to 7. Score after Q2: Oxford 45 – Cambridge 37.

Cambridge could not bring the momentum to the second half as Oxford extended their lead back to double figures. Their best player Orin Varley caused immense problems to the Cambridge defence, and they were not able to contain him for most parts of the game. With 5 mins to go in Q3, Varley hits a three to put Oxford up by 12 points. A minute later the lead is up to 14 after Oxford scored two free throws. It is again Elias Bresnick who makes the momentum shift back in Cambridge’s favour, when he volleyball-blocks a driving Varley, and thereafter tells his opponent that they “just lost it.”

However, Cambridge was still far from achieving just that, as they still had to overcome a 14 point deficit. Coach Weil took a time out and reminded his team that they had no more time to lose. He instructed his team to switch to zonal defence, a decision that should quickly turn out to pay off. After the game, veteran Mike Magee claimed that he suggested just that for basically the entire first half. Cambridge finally managed to get much needed stops with blocks Magee and Bresnick again, and scored on the other end in person of Vikaas Vaarma, Elias Bresnick and Nick Kingsley. Suddenly the deficit was down at 6 points and the stage was set for a ball game. Score after Q3: Oxford 61 – Cambridge 55.

In Q4 Cambridge came out running and hustling and continued where they left off. After a jumper by Varma and a three from “Money” Mike Magee, Cambridge are trailing by just a single point with eight minutes left in the game. In the next possession they have a chance to take the first lead of the game, but turn the ball over to give Oxford a free lane to the basket. Magee chases down the driving man and goes up for a somewhat clean rejection, but the referee calls him for a foul. Oxford make both and the lead is up at three. On the other end, Vikaas Varma answers with a reverse layup, but Oxford continued to pull away again. With 5 mins to go the lead is up to 6 points. Kingsley with another three and Riccardo Masina with two free throws make it a one-point game. With 2.07 left in the game Mike Magee goes up for a floater and is fouled. He goes to the line with the chance to put Cambridge up for the first time (probably not even in this game, but across all games played on this day). He sinks the first, he sinks the second. The commentators erupt and want to get a pulse check on Mike, figuring the man has ice in his veins. On the other side, Oxford gets free throws for Cambridge team fouls which puts Varley in the same situation. He ties the game at 69, but misses his second free throw after which Varma gets down with the rebound twisting his knee. One of Cambridge’s best players cannot continue and has to be carried off the court. Vittorio Masina comes on for the final minutes. In the next Cambridge possession, Riccardo Masina drives and kicks the ball to his brother Vittorio who gets a clean look from distance and puts Cambridge up by three. Oxford try to respond with a quick three, but the ball rattles out. They secure the rebound and eventually go to the line to make it a two point game. Then, Cambridge find again Vittorio Masina on the free throw line who spins around his defender and goes up for a layup – Cambridge by 4. Within seconds, Oxford find an open Karl Baddeley in the corner for an open jumper with his toes on the line. With 14 ticks left and two points ahead, Cambridge have the ball and need to run down the clock, but Oxford force a jump ball. In a wild last Oxford possession Kingsley almost gets a steal, before an Oxford player picks up the loose ball with one second left and somehow gets it in the air. Silence in the entire hall as the ball approaches the hoop. The buzzer goes on, while the ball is still in the air. The ball hits the inside of the basket, bounces to the other side and goes out. Cambridge wins Varsity by two points.

Final score: Oxford 72 – Cambridge 74.

The following post game celebrations were accordingly liquid – in a rainy night the team went out for dinner and a bar in Oxford (where some of them were later thrown out for talking to girls on different table and thereby violating covid rules) to celebrate a season where everything seemed to be perfect. Without doubt the weeks of intensive training formed a team with an exceptional spirit and camaraderie. Captain Riccardo Masina said that night: This win and this year in general were probably the best out of my four.

Link to Match:

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