MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Roy Rana has done amazing things for a guy from Bloor Collegiate in Toronto’s West End who only ever expected to be a teacher and coach some high school basketball.
He’s been around the world, won medals internationally for Canada and coached a fistful of lottery picks at the Nike Hoop Summit every April. He’s resurrected Ryerson University from a U Sports also-ran to one of the country’s elite programs and will be gunning for his third straight national finals appearance this coming March.
Yet for all his accomplishments, on Wednesday night in Mississauga Rana will feel some butterflies and maybe even pinch himself as he takes the floor against one of the biggest names in coaching as his Ryerson Rams and take on Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke Blue Devils.
“Absolutely, I get jazzed by it. It’s exciting, right?” said Rana, who is starting his ninth season at Ryerson, a position he’s held in conjunction with several age-group head coaching roles with Canada Basketball and serving as an assistant on the senior men’s team. “Any time you can coach against the best in the world, the best in their profession, it gives you goose bumps. I’ve had a chance to coach against [University of Kentucky head coach John] Calipari and Billy Donovan [University of Florida; Oklahoma City Thunder], Shaka Smart [University of Texas] – a lot of great names – but Coach K is Coach K, there aren’t a lot of people who have had that opportunity, I’m excited.”
It means Rana will face off against R.J. Barrett, the NBA star-in-waiting from Mississauga who headlines a superb Duke freshman class. A year ago Rana was the head coach of Canada’s U19 team that upset a Calipari-coached Team USA entry in the semifinals as Barrett produced arguably the signature moment of his young career as he put up 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in the upset and then led Canada over Italy for its first-ever gold at a global competition.
“We have a great relationship. We’ve won a lot together, it’s going to be fun to try and stop him,” said Rana, who also coached Barrett to victory at the Hoop Summit in April. “I’m used to being the guy who is encouraging him to go get it and now we have to find a way to stop him from going and getting it, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Likewise, Barrett is looking forward to facing off against his national team coach – “winning the gold medal under coach Rana, he just let me play and believed in me. I was able to learn a lot of confidence playing for him” – but remains confident in his talented Duke teammates whom he joined in putting on an impressive dunking exhibition after practice at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre on Tuesday.
Could Rana have a scouting report that could help contain Barrett?
“I expect R.J. to do what he consistently does which is be really aggressive and look to score and attack and all of those things and make plays for his teammates,” said Rana. “He’s a tremendous player and his mindset never changes and that’s what makes him special for a young guy. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing a junior [national team] game or a senior game or a Crown League game, he’s going for it every night and I expect the same thing when we play him and it’s up to us to try and stop him and it’s not going to happen 1-on-1.”
Barrett will take his chances: “I know how he coaches, so I guess I have an advantage against him too,” he said.
There is no scenario where Duke won’t be an overwhelming favourite against Ryerson, and even more so against University of Toronto on Friday and McGill University Sunday in Montreal to complete the tour.
But U.S. teams have gotten tripped up playing in Canada before, speaking to the increasing quality of the top U Sports programs.
No school has done more damage than Carleton which has made beating top American programs almost routine. In 2013 the Ravens beat Wisconsin in the summer before the Badgers lost to Kentucky in the 2014 national semifinal. It beat Kansas the summer of 2008, the year after the Jayhawks won the national championship. Just this week the Ravens reeled off four straight wins against Division I programs – Cincinnati, Ole Miss and South Dakota State (twice) – with the closest game being an 18-point win for the Ravens who will be seeking their 14th national championship under Dave Smart.
This is Duke’s first foray into Canada, and yes, Carleton wanted to be part of it.
“I asked if we could go to Montreal or Toronto to play them but there was no call back,” Smart said in an interview. “We really wanted to play them. We want to play anyone of that calibre. It would be a great experience for our guys and show us our holes. I’m not worried about winning or losing, but teams at that level, we want to play.”
Has the Ravens’ success hurt them in attracting opponents?
“I’ve been told coaches are dodging us,” said Smart.
According to a Duke spokesman, the tour was determined by which cities they wanted to visit with the opponents determined after that. Since U.S. teams can only do a foreign tour every four years any chance of a Ravens-Blue Devils matchup will have to wait.
Krzyzewski said he hasn’t scouted his opponents for this trip but is aware of the rising tide of Canadian basketball, something he saw was brewing decades ago when he recruited former national team star Danny Meagher from St. Catharines, Ont., in the 1980s and 2000 Olympian Greg Newton from Niagara Falls in the 1990s, with Barrett trending towards being the best Canadian prospect yet.
“We respect everybody,” said Krzyzewski. “… No matter what happens we will win from being on the tour. Obviously we want to win each game and if we do not then we will want to figure out why we didn’t and go on. It means something and it means nothing. We are going to concentrate on it meaning something knowing at the end of the day we are going to start 0-0 on Nov. 6 against Kentucky.”
For Rana and his Rams – along with U of T and McGill – playing against Duke can quite right rightly be considered a career highlight, regardless of the score.
“We’re going to take it in the spirit of an August game,” said Rana, who will roll out a lineup featuring seven-foot sophomore Tanor Ngom and 6-foot-8 shooting guard J.V. Mukama. “We’re going to try and get all our guys an opportunity to play because it will be a special moment for us and we’re going to try and win at the same time.
“[But] playing Duke speaks about the experience we are able to provide our athletes and the brand of our program. Duke has a phenomenal brand, maybe the greatest in all of college basketball and we’re just trying to strengthen ours.”