By Ben Waldman
For the last two years, the Ryerson Rams have gone to the national basketball championships—first on their home court in Toronto, then out west in Vancouver—with only gold on their minds, but each time walked away with bronze around their necks.
It’s nothing to scoff at—winning any national prize is an important validation of athletic success at the collegiate level.
Now as the Rams travel to Halifax for the 2017 U Sports Final 8 tournament as the top-rated team in the country, a third-place finish just won’t do.
The Rams are fed up with coming up short.
About a decade ago, the notion of a Ryerson basketball team even earning a trip to the tournament was laughable.
Ryerson finished the 2003-2004 season with a record of 0-22. The next year, they improved to 1-21.
In the six seasons before current Rams head coach Roy Rana took the helm, Ryerson won 29 games, or an average of nearly five victories per season.
In the last two years alone, Ryerson’s won 34 times.
It’s not a fluke: Rana’s repeatedly retooled the roster following the departures of key contributors.
When team captain and point guard Jahmal Jones graduated in 2015, current star Adika Peter-McNeilly was ready to take the reins. In Aaron Best’s final year, the Rams were able to nab Ammanuel Diressa, who now with Peter-McNeilly forms the nucleus of the Rams’ backcourt along with Myles Charvis, a talented guard Ryerson snatched from Waterloo on a transfer.
As the top seed, the Rams are aware there is a target on their backs.
Last year, they entered the tournament ranked first, but were given a serious run for their money from the host UBC Thunderbirds. The eighth-ranked T-birds led for most of the game before Ryerson took control in overtime to advance to the semi-finals.
UBC was upset by the Manitoba Bisons in this year’s Canada West tournament, so the Thunderbirds won’t be around to rain on Ryerson’s parade. This time around, the Saint Mary’s University (SMU) Huskies are hoping to do that.
Saint Mary’s comes into the tournament without much high regard. The Huskies finished the season with a 13-7 record and earned a tournament berth off their second-place finish in their conference tournament, but they can’t be underestimated.
The Huskies are led by a quartet of seniors in guards Marquis Clayton, Theon Reefer, Brian Rouse, and forward Achuil Lual. Each of the four averages at least 11 points per game, good for an average of 63 points each contest.
SMU has proven they can score. They’re ranked eighth nationally in total points and fifth in three-point percentage. The Huskies also turn the ball over at the third-lowest rate in the country.
Ryerson are obvious favourites, though, and not without good reason. The Rams beat Carleton and Ottawa, two of the country’s best teams, in the OUA tournament. Whereas SMU is ranked fifth in three-point percentage, Ryerson makes more threes on average than any other team in Canada.
Perhaps most importantly, the Rams have been here before. They’ve felt the sting of loss and aren’t trying to feel it again.
This tournament is the last shot at a national championship for Peter-McNeilly, Diressa, Adam Voll, and hustle-stats superstar/glue-guy Juwon Grannum. They don’t want to go home without the first title in school history.
After watching and studying the Rams from the sideline at last year’s tournament in UBC and coaching his team to a hard-fought victory in the bronze medal game two years ago, Rana doesn’t want to go home empty-handed, either.
When Ryerson won its 2015 bronze, Rana wasn’t exactly ecstatic but he wasn’t angry either. Optimistically, he made a prediction.
“We’ll be back [at nationals],” he said. “We’ll be there.”
Being there is one thing.
Winning it all there is quite another.
Ryerson tips off at 5:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 9. The game can be streamed online at usports.ca.