By Ben Waldman
With his team set to open its regular season Saturday night, men’s basketball head coach Roy Rana sat focused in his office, contemplating what was to come in his first season back after a year away on sabbatical.
“We’ve lost a lot of key people [this season],” he said.
Two of the Rams top players—Aaron Best and Kadeem Green—graduated, and JV Mukama, a standout forward who was set to have a breakout year, will sit out the season to focus on his academics. Patrick Tatham, who served as interim head coach last season, has moved on to coach with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League.
Ryerson’s roster will feature 11 new players, the most new additions the team has made during Rana’s tenure as head coach. “We’ve lost a lot of talent, experience and toughness in those three guys,” he said. “How do we find that? How do we make that up?”
The new players will be forced into major roles immediately, becoming the supporting cast for Rams mainstays like Adika Peter-McNeilly, Ammanuel Diressa and Juwon Grannum.
Guard Myles Charvis, a transfer from the University of Waterloo, figures to make an immediate impact. He’s quick, excellent in transition and has an innate ability to attack the paint. Keevon Small, a six-foot-six rookie from Montreal, will help fill the void left by Mukama. The team calls him “Mini JV.” And Warsame Mohamed, a towering centre, will contribute interior size and energy. The team refers to him as “Booster.”
In the past, Ryerson’s place in the upper echelon of the league was all but guaranteed. Each of the last two seasons finished with the Rams winning bronze at the national tournament. But this season, the team has more question marks than exclamation points; this group is somewhat a mystery to anyone other than themselves.
“People are still trying to figure out who we are,” Rana said. “We may go into the season unranked.”
Peter-McNeilly, now in his fourth year, has seen his role fluctuate throughout his career. He’s been an eager understudy and he’s played second fiddle, but this year he gets a real shot at being the conductor of the entire orchestra.
“When I came in, I was the little boy trying to manoeuvre my way around and trying to learn from everyone else. Now it’s a teaching moment. I have to become a leader. I have to be more vocal and more assertive,” he said.
The upcoming season will be Peter-McNeilly’s last with Ryerson. He’s taken the team to nationals three times and last year led the Rams to their first-ever OUA championship victory.
Rana and his players are keenly aware of the position they’re in. They’ve sat on the cusp of national championship glory for years. They’ve felt the sting of loss. They’ve gone further than most do, but not as far as they want.
“There’s a feeling in the locker room that we can still do this,” Peter-McNeilly said. “I want to go out with a bang with a national championship.”
It won’t be easy.
The OUA is filled with extremely strong teams who are capable of giving the Rams a run for their money. There’s a sense that the parity in the league has increased, so Peter-McNeilly is quick to remind himself that to get to the ultimate prize, the Rams must first win their own division.
Rana watched from the sidelines last season as Ryerson lost to the University of Calgary in the national semi-finals in Vancouver. Even though he wasn’t coaching, he still remembers the loss with vivid detail.
“You hope to play your best game when the lights are on the brightest,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ve done that yet.”
At times this preseason, Ryerson has looked excellent. At others, they’ve looked like something was missing.
“The jury’s still out,” Rana said, leaning back in his chair.
The Rams open their season on the road against Laurier on Nov. 5 at 8 pm. Their first home game is Nov. 18 against Nipissing.