By Gavin Axelrod and Libaan Osman
The Ryerson Rams men’s basketball team will tip off its post-season run this upcoming Wednesday at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.
But before they do, The Eye is taking a look at how they finished the season strong with a 16-6 record. We’ll also tell you which players to watch out for and what the team needs to do to reach the U Sports Final 8 tournament in Ottawa for the sixth straight year.
It was just months ago that Ryerson found themselves heading into the winter break with a 5-5 record and close to the bottom of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Central division.
Ryerson was dealing with the loss of five graduating players and the absence of centre Tanor Ngom for the first six games of the year due to injury, which contributed to the team’s struggles early on.
“A lot of the losses we felt like we shouldn’t have lost; there were a lot of close games [and] a lot of games where we were up and losing the lead,” said Rams point guard Tevaun Kokko.
The team had just three players from last year’s rotation return, leaving players struggling to adjust to the lack of familiarity with one another.
“When everything’s going wrong, you see true colours,” said Kokko. “We stayed focused, stayed with what coaches were telling us and stayed positive to our growth and progress. It’s coming to fruition now.”
To the surprise of many, head coach Borko Popic and the Rams have silenced doubters, flipping the switch on both ends of the floor—winning 12 of their last 13 games to close out the year.
“The second half of the season, it’s a complete 180, it’s night and day,” said Rams forward Keevon Small.
In January, Ryerson put the league on notice with huge wins over McMaster, Western and the No. 5 ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees.
A month to remember
In the new year, the team would finally crack the U Sports top 10 rankings, and Kokko’s breakthrough had just begun. Kokko was named the U Sports athlete of the month for January after averaging 27.0 points on 55.1 per cent shooting.
As a crafty and deadly shooter, Kokko established himself as one of the best players in the country. He finished the season top five in scoring and second in three-point percentage across the OUA.
“Teams just wanna shoot because they’re scared of Tanor”
“Kokko’s a bucket. Whenever he wants to score he will score,” said Small. “The shots he makes; sometimes you’ll be like ‘Woah I can’t believe he made that’ but at the end of the day it’s Kokko, he should be doing that.”
It’s also hard to ignore what Ngom has meant to Ryerson on both ends of the floor since his return back in late November. The seven-foot-two centre has become a player you don’t want to meet at the rim.
“Let’s say you get beat, Tanor is right there to contest or block a shot,” said Small. “No one wants to get in the paint [and] teams just wanna shoot because they’re scared of Tanor.”
Heading into the playoffs, Ngom is averaging 16.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.
Ryerson will also rely on Small’s expertise as he’s the only player on the roster that has played in three U Sports Final 8 tournaments.
Small ranks top 10 in the OUA in blocks and steals—most recently jumping to second all-time in program history for steals in a game with seven. This time of year is all about locking in defensively for Small, who’s helped the Rams finish first in the OUA in opponent field goal percentage.
“I’m always that defensive guy, I like playing defence,” said Small. “Defence wins championships.”
“With Mo I see myself [and] how I was in my first year”
Let’s not forget about fourth-year guard Jayden Frederick, who will be yet another key player in the Rams’ championship pursuit. Frederick is averaging 19.1 points per game and has recorded three double-doubles on the year.
The rise of the rookies
Rarely do first year players gain the trust of the coaching staff and flourish the way Tom Dumont and Mouhamed Ndiaye have for Ryerson. Dumont has started nearly all season while Ndiaye’s sharpshooting has opened up the floodgates for Ryerson’s primary scorers.
“Without those contributions, it leaves a lot more for other people to cover,” said Kokko. “I think they’ve been doing a great job of stepping up, playing well and buying into the system.”
Small echoed the same sentiments as Kokko, appreciating and seeing the value the two rookies have brought to the table.
“With Mo I see myself [and] how I was in my first year, just knocking down threes and playing really aggressive on defence,” said Small. “Tom, on the other hand, he’s been finding himself, doing really well [and] dunking on anybody, it’s great to see both of those guys shine.”
Ndiaye is shooting 38.9 per cent from beyond the arc on 5.3 attempts per game while Dumont has scored in double-digits for the Rams seven times on the year.
In Ryerson’s first 10 games they shot an average of 39.4 per cent from the field—but since then, the team is shooting an OUA best 52.7 per cent.
What Ryerson needs to clean up
Turnovers seem to be the Rams’ biggest area of concern. Ryerson ranks 15th in the OUA in turnovers with 16.8 per game and has committed 20-plus turnovers on six separate occasions this season.
Their sole loss in 2020 came to the No. 1 ranked Carleton Ravens, where they allowed 21 points off their turnovers.
“Turning over the ball especially in certain situations, is almost guaranteed to be a few points on the other end,” said Kokko. “It’s definitely a point of emphasis.”
A scorching hot Ryerson team will begin their playoff journey this Wednesday against the Guelph Gryphons. These two teams met on Feb. 5, where the Rams used a 26-4 fourth quarter run to overcome a 16-point deficit and seal a thrilling 91-85 win.
If Ryerson beats Guelph, they’ll travel to the nation’s capital to take on Ottawa, a team they defeated at home by 23 points in January.
After winning six straight games to close out the regular season, we’ll see if the Rams can carry their momentum and peak at the perfect time to make their sixth straight Final 8 appearance.