By Ben Waldman
Ryerson Rams (17-2, 1st OUA East) vs Nipissing Lakers (9-10, 3rd OUA North)
OUA Quarter-Final Game: Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. @ Mattamy Athletic Centre
Season Series vs Nipissing: 1-0
Points Scored: 84
Points Allowed: 64
A few days before Ryerson’s men’s basketball team began its season, head coach Roy Rana still wasn’t sure what to expect from his players.
Rana thought the reigning Ontario University Athletics (OUA) champions and national bronze medalists had the experience, pedigree and talent necessary for a deep playoff run, even after losing veterans like Aaron Best, Kadeem Green and JV Mukama. After taking the 2015-2016 season off on a sabbatical, Rana was set to begin doing his familiar sideline pacing and brow furrowing. Like everyone in the league, he knew his team had an incredibly high ceiling, but in the back of his mind it was clear that reaching it would be far easier said than done.
After finishing the regular season with a 17-2 record and an OUA East division win, the ‘doing’ is well within reach. On Saturday night, the Rams will host the Nipissing Lakers in a playoff matchup with an OUA final four berth on the line.
Ryerson comes into the game off a first-round bye, giving them time to prepare for the Lakers, who beat the Queen’s Gaels 77-74 in the preliminary round to advance.
The Lakers finished their season with a 9-10 record, but that doesn’t tell their whole story.
Nipissing has only fielded a men’s basketball team for three seasons, and they aren’t eager to squander their first-ever playoff season by giving the Rams an easy go. To close the season, the Lakers won five of seven games, and a few weeks earlier handed the Brock Badgers— a team that beat Ryerson—a three-point loss.
While the Rams still have a lot to prove, they can no longer point to themselves as underdogs as they may have in seasons past. The team is loaded in the backcourt, with veterans Adika Peter-McNeilly, Ammanuel Diressa and Myles Charvis routinely showing flashes of brilliance running the offence.
On defense, Ryerson has a major edge. The Rams led the OUA with over 11 steals per game, and Nipissing turned the ball over at an alarming rate of 16.7 times per game, the third-worst rate in the league. If the Lakers have any hope of keeping the game close, they will need to hold on to the ball, or else the Rams will capitalize.
One weak point for Ryerson, though not a glaring one, is on the glass, where Nipissing tends to cover up some of its own weaknesses. Nipissing ranks third in the OUA in rebounding margin while Ryerson ranks eighth—not bad, but not transcendent—and when the Lakers get control of the boards, they look like an entirely different team.
In their nine wins this season, the Lakers grabbed an average of more than eight boards more than the opposing team, nearly doubling their cumulative average.
That puts pressure on the Rams frontcourt. It’s not ideal, but not an unwelcome challenge for Ryerson either.
The recent return of six-foot-seven forward Adam Voll from injury gives the Rams more interior depth and a better shot at securing rebounds. One of Voll’s better attributes is anticipating the ball off the rim, and his presence helps cover up the gaps inside.
Rams forward Juwon Grannum is enjoying a career year, putting up 10.4 points per game and providing high-quality offense to go along with some of the most consistent defense on the team. In his final year, Grannum has found a solid outside shooting stroke, shooting 40.6 per cent from three, good enough for 11th best in the league.
A year removed from their championship glory, Ryerson is eager to put another banner up on their home court. They’ve had quite the run so far, but Rana and his team knows better than to expect easy victories.
To beat Nipissing, Ryerson must resist the urge to underestimate its opponent. It’s something Rana and Peter-McNeilly preach constantly: In a league like the OUA, anybody can beat anybody. It just depends who wants it more.
The Rams face the Lakers on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.