By: Monty Mosher
You get the feeling Nico Brauner would be happy to stay in Canada a while longer.
But, ready or not, the 24-year-old guard from Germany will wrap up his time in Canadian university basketball when the Saint Mary's Huskies end their season.
That could be this weekend in the AUS tournament in Halifax. The Huskies will be the top seed after a 19-1 season, losing their bid for a clean sheet last Friday at UNB.
Should the nationally fifth-ranked Huskies advance beyond this weekend, they would chase their first national title in 20 years in the Final 8 at Scotiabank Centre. The Dalhousie Tigers are the host team.
Brauner played professional basketball for Wurzburg in a lower-tier German league before coming to Canada four years ago. He was destined for the Cape Breton Capers, recruited there by coach Matt Skinn.
He had to sit for a year to regain his varsity eligibility. When it was finally his time to play, he broke his foot and missed the entire season.
Skinn had moved on to Calgary and David Petroziello moved into the Cape Breton job. Brauner and Petroziello didn't mesh and the team had little success.
Brauner looked around the conference, and the country, for another opportunity. He ended up choosing Jonah Taussig's Huskies.
Set to head home after graduation
Ironically, Skinn is back in Cape Breton and will guide the Capers back into the playoffs.
Brauner has two years of eligibility remaining, but, at 24, he wants to see how far he can go in the German pro ranks before too much time passes. He'll graduate in May and return home to take his shot.
In his two years at Saint Mary's, he started all 40 regular-season games, averaging 12.4 points per game. He was named MVP of the Rod Shoveller tournament at Dalhousie in December.
He saw an opportunity with the Huskies before he arrived. He knew there was going to be some turnover on the roster, giving him a chance to play right away.
"I figured because I hadn't played for two years that Saint Mary's would be the right spot for me to go," he said this week. "At that point it was all about playing time. For me, that was the biggest aspect. I wanted lots of minutes. I ended up making the right decision because I've been playing a lot."
There was always the issue of missing so much time. Two years is an eternity when your goal is to make a mark in U Sports toward a return to the pro game.
"It was awful," he said. "It did affect me, but I always knew what I was capable of and I was always in the gym and ready to go. My first year, even though I didn't play, I was always practising along with them and I could tell I could hang with them."
Something to prove
It left him with something to prove when he arrived at Saint Mary's.
"I did feel a certain pressure, I have to be honest," he said. "The people in Cape Breton knew I was a decent basketball player and I felt like I had to prove to the league what I was a capable of, especially since I already lost two years. So, I felt like I had to deliver and that did affect my game somewhat, but eventually I got back into my routine and my rhythm and it was just about playing basketball."
Taussig said Brauner's impact has been considerable.
"He's one of the most competitive people I've come across in my time," he said. "He plays extremely hard and will do whatever's asked to try to help the team. He's one of our leaders this year and probably the most vocal person on the team."
The Huskies put together a solid season last year with a 14-6 record. The addition of Nevell Provo, Jelani Mofford and Johneil Johnson this off-season made a strong roster that much better.
Brauner didn't see a run at an undefeated season, but he saw the team had a chance to do something special. The team is 28-3 overall this year.
"I feel like that happened quite early when we beat reigning national champion Calgary (in October)," he said. "I felt like after that win the guys knew the season could be something big. We competed against really good teams in the pre-season and beat them. Once the regular season started we continued to do what we did in the pre-season."
Prior experience in North America
It was always Brauner's dream to come to North America to play basketball. He thought that might take him to the NCAA, but it didn't happen.
He was 19 when he left for Canada. He said it was easier for him to make a transition because he saw it as a major opportunity. Also, he lived in the U.S. at age 16 as an exchange student, so he was comfortable being abroad.
"Playing basketball makes it so much easier," he said of the adjustment. "I touched base right away. It was a great decision I made. The past four years were amazing here in Canada."
But he knows it is time to go. He might not be old, but he's running out of time to be considered a pro prospect.
"I want to see how far I can go before eventually reaching up that ladder isn't possible anymore," he said.
Whether it is this weekend or next, his Canadian university basketball time will end.
"It's a bit of a weird feeling. Right now, I'm just excited to play this weekend and hopefully the one after. But I don't think it's going to be very easy for me to call it a university career. But I think I will have to do that."
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter in Halifax. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)