By Bryan Meler
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Sitting in the Blue Devils’ locker room, following their 86-67 over the Ryerson Rams to start their Duke Canada Tour, Cam Reddish’s eyes widened as he let out a deep breath.
“No, R.J. [Barrett] didn’t warn us about this,” said Reddish, who because of a minor injury took in the atmosphere of a sold-out crowd in Mississauga’s Paramount Fine Foods Centre from the bench on Wednesday night.
It was the first time the Blue Devils, led by the winningest coach in NCAA men’s basketball history in Mike Krzyzewski, made the trip up North. A step that portrayed a clear sign of how much the game has grown in Canada, and at Ryerson during Roy Rana’s tenure.
“Rana is a terrific coach … I admire what he’s done,” said Krzyzewski following the game. “He’s an integral part of what you’re trying to do with Canadian basketball.”
The matchup was the start of a three-game exhibition schedule for Duke against Canadian university competition. With ESPN on site, it was the first time everyone was able to see the Blue Devils’ plethora of future NBA lottery picks take the floor together. It was also Barrett’s opportunity to play in front of his hometown of Mississauga, an hour away from Toronto, a city the Rams call home.
When asked by The Eyeopener, coach Krzyzewski said the atmosphere didn’t surprise him. While the arena was draped in Duke jerseys, the Rams, who stand as back-to-back U SPORTS national finalists, proved why they were a worthy foe, despite ultimately losing by double-digits.
Led by a veteran cast, the Rams were able to finish the first quarter up 17-15 against a young and inexperienced Blue Devils squad. “We’re not out here to play and have a laugh; it doesn’t matter who we play, we’re trying to win,” said Rana.
Tanor Ngom, who could become the first player drafted to the NBA with Canadian university basketball experience since 1982, finished the opening frame with a poster dunk on Alex O’Connell. The Duke guard would immediately be rushed to the hospital, suffering an orbital floor fracture that will sideline him for the rest of their Canada Tour as they make their way to Montreal after another matchup in Mississauga.
But following the opening frame, the Blue Devils’ talent proved to be too much.
Almost everyone in the gym was already familiar with Barrett’s talent. Especially Rana, who was his head coach last summer when Canada’s U19 team won their first international gold medal at the FIBA Championships in Egypt. But despite all the attention, he was ready to show everyone why he came into the night a projected first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Barrett had a sub-par shooting night (12-30), but was still able to dominate his competition on his way to a game-high 34 points. With Tre Jones out, he stepped up as the primary ball handler, and got revenge for his fallen teammate with a poster dunk on Ngom in transition, starting a frenzy in the same gym that’s a walking distance from his childhood home.
— Bleeed_Royal_Blue (@DukeMensbball_) August 16, 2018
“It was a surreal feeling, and a great experience,” said Barrett. ”There were plenty of familiar faces in the crowd, I was proud to have everyone come out and be able to support me and my teammates.”
Zion Williamson, clocking in at close to 285 pounds with a six-foot-seven frame, also put on a show in his first time wearing a Duke jersey. A human highlight film, Williamson impressed with his 3-4 shooting from beyond the arc, but his dunks and athleticism stole the show on his way to 29 points to go along with 13 rebounds and two blocks.
Barrett and Williamson were too much to handle for the Rams, who were led by fifth-year J.V. Mukama and his 20 points. Following the game, Mukama and his teammates weren’t happy with the result, but they were still amazed by what had taken place that night on their home soil.
Mukama remembers playing Wisconsin in his first year with the Rams, but he says he never thought they would be going against the “legendary coach K” and the Duke Blue Devils when Rana initially recruited him.
Under Rana, the Rams continue to develop as one of Canada’s elite basketball powerhouses. During his nine-year tenure, he’s led Ryerson to the playoffs each year, along with two Ontario University Athletics titles, and a pair of U SPORTS national silver and bronze medals. It’s quite the difference considering, before his arrival, the program had only qualified for one national tournament appearance in over 30 years.
With a stint as an interim head coach of Canada’s senior men’s team, along with setting history in Cairo, Rana also has an international resume to be admired. But even last night, sitting at the helm of the Rams as they played Duke, provided an experience that left him searching for words.
“As far as the experience is concerned, I mean, wow,” said Rana. “Not only the fact that it’s Duke but an incredible crowd, great energy, just a real celebration of basketball in our country, really.”