NCAA coaches taking part in the inaugural Vancouver Showcase are not only excited about visiting the city, but about its prospects as a home base for the top level of collegiate and university competition. (Graphic courtesy Vancouver Showcase)
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Vancouver Showcase ’18: NCAA coaches Pitino, Hopkins, Fortier bullish on B.C.’s future as an NBA and NCAA Div. 1 region

VANCOUVER — Vancouver’s roots in the mainstream basketball world at-large haven’t always been the deepest or the most tradition-laden. 

Yet as the countdown begins to the inaugural Vancouver Showcase, a week of the best that the NCAA Div. 1 men’s and women’s game has to offer beginning Nov. 18 at the Vancouver Convention Centre, there was no question that they’re deep enough that a trio of prominent head coaches were happy top share their thoughts on the potential the region holds as a future home to the game’s top tiers of competition.

Washington Huskies’ men’s head coach Mike Hopkins, Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s head coach Richard Pitino, and Lisa Fortier, head coach of the Gonzaga Bulldogs women’s team, are all taking part in the Vancouver Showcase, and each was bullish about the prospects for a future that includes both the return of the NBA and the ground-breaking potential of an NCAA Div. 1 basketball program north of the 49th.

While Hopkins is focused first and foremost on a Huskies’ program he has ranked in the Top 25 for the first time to start a season since 2011, he was also quick to reveal his inner basketball fan when Varsity Letters’ asked him about what he felt was most special about the former connection Seattle and Vancouver shared through their NBA membership during a conference call held Friday.

“It’s interesting to think about,” said Hopkins, whose team kicks off the Vancouver Showcase Nov. 18 (5 p.m.) against the Santa Clara Broncos. “Obviously, I am a huge NBA fan and when I got into coaching, one of my mentors was an assistant coach with the Seattle Supersonics during their really good (mid-1990s) years and it was such a great basketball city.

“I always held that remembrance, and then when I had the opportunity to get the job at the University of Washington, that was so special.”

Hopkins both played and coached under the legendary Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, where one of his teammates went on to become a charter member of the Grizzlies in their 1995-96 season.

“Whenever I talk to people, like Lawrence Moten, who I played with and was drafted by Vancouver,  they all loved going to Vancouver and Seattle because they were great sports cities, great NBA environments.

“When you have that,” continued Hopkins, “you would love to see teams in those cities because it’s such a great game. Hopefully, in the next four-to-five years, we see the NBA coming back to both Seattle and Vancouver.”

Both Pitino and Fortier addressed our questions regarding the potential of an NCAA Div. 1 men’s and women’s program someday coming to this region, perhaps at Simon Fraser, where the Div. 2 Clan are the only NCAA member outside of the U.S.

“I don’t know any of the logistical parts of it,” said Gonzaga’s Fortier, whose program nonetheless has a deep history of Canadian players, especially from western Canada. “But there are enough good players.”

Former Brookswood Bobcats’ sensation Louise Forsyth is the latest, and the rising sophomore guard will be amongst family and friends when her new team opens the women’s portion of the Vancouver Showcase against the defending NCAA champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish at high noon on Nov. 22.

“We just graduated (South Kamloops Titans grad) Emma Wolfram, who was a tremendous player for us while she was healthy,” said Fortier. “And we’ve had (Taber, Alta.’s 2011 grad) Janelle Bekkering. We’ve had five or six Canadians on the team.

“I know a lot of Canadians come down here to play NCAA basketball because the perception is that it’s a high level for some of them,” Fortier continued. “So I think if there was the perception that you were going to get those (NCAA Div. 1) games and get that coaching and that competition and be able to stay at home, I think that that would be a huge draw. So I would not be surprised if that was something that came down the pipe later on, or if Simon Fraser moved up (to Div. 1).”

Pitino may not have a direct connection to Vancouver, but through his famous father Rick, you don’t have to extend through too many degrees of separation.

One of Rick Pitino’s assistant coaches on the Cinderella 1986-87 Providence Friars’ Final Four team was Stu Jackson, who of course was the NBA Grizzlies’ general manager for the first five of their six seasons in Vancouver.

Richard Pitino has seen the depth of top-end talent being produced here, and he doesn’t feel an NCAA Div. 1 basketball program in Canada is any kind of stretch.

“I think it will happen at some point where you’re going to get Div. 1 basketball there,” Pitino said. “I think it’s a matter of when, not if and the fans there very passionate about the sport. I definitely think it’ll happen soon.”

Minnesota’s men’s basketball team has played in Vancouver before, but never as part of its in-season schedule.

The Golden Gophers, as part of an international tour year, came to UBC’s War Memorial Gymnasium for a Sept. 2, 2010 ‘non-counter’ in which they beat the ‘Birds 80-62.

That season, Tubby Smith was the team’s head coach, and on that night, former Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins had flown back to Vancouver to watch his freshman son Austin, play his first-ever game with the Gophers.

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