By Gavin Axelrod
David DeAveiro spent his first few months as the new head coach of the Ryerson Rams men’s basketball team trying to gain as much information about the roster as possible. The team expected 13 of 17 players from the 2019-20 season to return, most notably losing star centre Tanor Ngom, who transferred to Florida State University. The team wasn’t expected to do much recruiting.
The Rams would’ve been well-positioned to build on a disappointing end to the 2019-20 season—which saw the team miss the U Sports Final 8 tournament for the first time in five years—if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the cancellation of the 2020-21 U Sports season in October was disappointing, it gave DeAveiro and his staff the opportunity to look toward the future. They put together a recruiting class of five players and added a few walk-ons who hope to make the team when play resumes next season.
“The initial plan was we don’t need many guys this year because we’re going to be playing in September and the majority of the team was supposed to come back,” said DeAveiro. “Then [the pandemic] just changed everything…you’re really recruiting now for 2021.”
The pandemic forced many Canadians playing at U.S. schools to decide whether they wanted to remain in the country or transfer back home. This gave U Sports teams like Ryerson the opportunity to land high-level players who might not have been available if not for the current situation.
“Then [the pandemic] just changed everything… you’re really recruiting now for 2021”
A major selling point was the program’s history, which includes six national championship tournament appearances in the last nine years.
“Ryerson has a tradition of success in our program,” said DeAveiro. “For Toronto [players] who go down there and come back, Ryerson’s an attractive place for them to go to school and still enjoy the level of basketball they’re looking for.”
One of those players was six-foot-five guard Tyler Sagl, who impressed in his debut season at Marist College, a Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) program. NCAA Division I programs are known as the top of the mountain in college basketball, and landing a player of Sagl’s calibre is something Rams assistant coach Jeremie Kayeye deemed “invaluable.”
The Burlington, Ont., native averaged 8.5 points per game, the most of any first-year player in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), and ranked 15th with a 37.2 three-point percentage in 2019-20. He also became the first member of the team to earn All-Rookie honours since the 2015-16 season.
“I feel that I’m gonna come in and make a really big impact. I’m ready to be a leader [and] help us win a national championship for the first time,” said Sagl.
Sagl is known for his shooting, but also said that grit and toughness are positive attributes he’ll bring to the team. He’ll star alongside a cast of sharpshooters, which includes All-Canadian guard Tevaun Kokko, who ranked second in the country with a 49.9 per cent field goal percentage, Mouhamed Ndiaye, who shot 38.9 per cent from deep, and Tom Dumont, who lead the country in three-point shooting last year at 49 per cent.
“Ryerson has a tradition of success in our program”
The second-year guard is one of Ryerson’s most important recruits, not just because of what he can do on the court, but also because of what he brings to the program off of it. DeAveiro sees Sagl as someone who can act as a recruiter and convince other elite players to stay in Canada and come to Ryerson, a role Sagl is willing to take on.
“I would love to help recruit,” said Sagl. “When we can get high-level players at Ryerson, it’s better for us as a team and anything I can do to help my team win, I’ll do [it].”
The “Tyler Effect,” as DeAveiro coined it, played a key part in third-year guard Marcus Upshaw’s transfer from Acadia University to Ryerson. Upshaw is also from Burlington, Ont., and has spent a lot of time playing basketball with Sagl.
“I was super excited when I heard Tyler was transferring back [to Canada] because that was around the time I was making my decision as well,” said Upshaw. “It’s definitely really cool because I know what type of player he is [and] what type of guy he is.”
Upshaw is also looking forward to being back in Ontario after spending the last two years at Acadia, in Wolfville, N.S.
“Just looking at our conference, we play two Toronto teams, one in Hamilton where I live and one in St. Catherines where I went to prep school,” said Upshaw. “It’s kind of funny how at least a couple teams we play are gonna be close to where my friends and family are from.”
The six-foot-two guard averaged 14.4 points and 2.7 assists per game on 42.9 per cent shooting and started in all 20 of the Axemen’s games last season.
While Upshaw and Sagl are looking to build upon their successful university basketball careers, second-year swingman Lenda Diarra is looking forward to a fresh start. Diarra is listed as a six-foot-seven forward but considers himself to be more of a combo guard, which means he can play multiple positions.
“Dave is a cool guy”
Diarra spent the 2019-20 season in Cape Breton, N.S. with the Cape Breton University Capers. He suffered an ankle injury last August, which hadn’t healed in November and after the holiday break, he had made the decision to sit out the rest of the year.
“I knew I wasn’t going to play for the rest of the year. From that moment I was trying to [decide] if I should stay at Cape Breton or leave,” said Diarra. “I never thought about quitting basketball, it was just tough on the mental side.”
Diarra has known his new head coach since he was 16 years old, when he and new Rams teammate Mouhamed Ndiaye routinely snuck into practices together during DeAveiro’s time at McGill.
“We would go into the gym and get some shots up, and every time the McGill guys would come in, there’s three gyms so we would go to the other gym,” said Diarra. “Then, if they were scrimmaging we would try and work our way in, but when we grew up and were a bit taller and more athletic, we would go and play in the runs.”
“I’m pretty sure he saw us, but he never complained, Dave is a cool guy,” he added.
Diarra and Ndiaye grew up together in Longueuil, Que. and even attended the same prep school, Thetford Academy. Their relationship is one of the reasons he came to Ryerson.
“We were 12-years-old when we first met. We played basketball together often and every summer we work out together,” added Diarra.
“Great student, strong worker on the court and he just happens to be a basketball player”
Malik Kennedy is another recruit who returned home to Toronto after spending the past two years at Morehouse College, an NCAA Division II program.
The six-foot-five guard averaged eight points and shot 34.9 per cent from three-point range last season. Kennedy was a dual athlete at Morehouse and played for the school’s baseball team as well.
“To get a guy of this calibre again, it’s the same thing [as] the other guys. Great student, strong worker on the court and he just happens to be a basketball player,” said Kayeye.
Another academically solid player the team added was first-year forward Elijah Roye from Montreal. DeAveiro cites his work ethic in the classroom as something that made him a good fit for the program, because off the court it’s student first, athlete second.
“When you recruit good students or you have good academic students in your program, you’re not worrying about how you’re gonna keep them eligible or ‘you’re gonna wake up tomorrow and what might happen?’ It’s one less worry for you as a coach,” said DeAveiro.
Roye is a six-foot-eight forward described by DeAveiro as being a big body and someone who can run the floor. The Rams head coach was excited about the prospect of having Roye protect the paint and also develop a three-point shot in the coming years.
“A kid like that who’s 18, [the pandemic] has been beneficial for him,” said DeAveiro. “We spent three months working on his skills for the majority of the time, which he probably wouldn’t have got if we were playing.”
Kayeye agreed and explained how the cancelled season gives Roye an advantage going forward.
“For a true freshman to come in and be able to get used to the pace, the instruction [and] the terminology was definitely something that he needed,” said Kayeye. “Once he comes back, he’s not gonna be a true freshman, he’s gonna be [like] a second-year guy, but still playing in his first year of eligibility.”
“Ryerson’s an attractive place for them to go to school and still enjoy the level of basketball they’re looking for”
Zaid Ali, Robernet Mannella and Bernard Malual round out the class as walk-on players. The trio are students at Ryerson but have yet to make the team.
Ali is a six-foot-three guard from Calgary and has spent the past number of months training with Pakistan’s national team. Mannella is a six-foot-two guard from Oakville, Ont., and is someone Kayeye watched develop during his time in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association.
Both players would be in their first year of eligibility if they crack the roster.
On the other hand, Malual spent two years at ASA College, a Division I junior college in Miami, Fla. The six-foot-eight centre has played basketball for just four years, but his size could make him a long term investment.
Coming to Ryerson as a walk-on is a challenge he’s embraced.
“I’ve always bet on myself from one aspect of playing basketball until now,” said Malual “I never made my high school team ever…I’ve just been betting on myself all these years, so this is nothing new to me,” said Malual.
A new era of Ryerson Rams men’s basketball is underway, despite the fact the team hasn’t actually played in almost a year. With new players and a distinguished coaching staff at the helm, Ryerson’s 2020 recruiting class believes it can help the team win its first national championship.