Feb 26, 2015

By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett

This is Jahmal Jones’ time. The senior point guard is the face of the Ryerson University Rams basketball program. If he has his way, he’ll be the face of the CIS final 8 tournament. Yet if he leaves his imprint all over the national championship this year, it will be fueled by the pain of not making it in years prior, with a program that was never expected to be in a position to win just a few years ago.

If you’ve been in Toronto over the past month you may have seen his face splashed on promotional material across the city. Now the streetcars that run east and west on College St. are retrofitted with the player who chose to go to school somewhere he hadn’t previously heard of. “I chose Ryerson over the other schools, for the opportunity to play right away and have the chance to make an impact on the program. I wanted to experience the downtown Toronto life and play in front of my family,” he says.

At that time, he had no idea that downtown experience would include playing in the national championship in one of the world’s most famous arenas. It’s poetic justice – after putting his program on the map, the entire country will gather in his gym for his final tournament.

When Jones was being recruited, Ryerson wasn’t on his radar and for good reason. Up until that point, the Rams had only one national championship berth to show for and were best known for a woeful 0-22 season in 2003-04 (although in fairness they did win an exhibition game by 2 over UQAM that season). Ryerson was just 38-115 in the five years prior to Jones signing on with the program. Their regular season record is 72-33 during the Jones era. The Rams’ league record has improved every year he’s been in the program, from 11-11 in his freshman campaign, to 13-9 in year two, to 15-5 in his first season as a captain, then 16-6 last year, and finally 17-2 this season.

His biggest impact might not be his on-court scoring but his ability to help score big recruits. When a Toronto area high school legend decides to stay at home to play collegiate ball, people take notice. Jahmal was just one of four Toronto area Rams in his first season but that number has gone up every year since he’s been in the program, just like the number of wins has. Now all but one player on the roster is from Ontario, with 11 from the GTA.

Jones bluntly admits “I did not know much about the program, I did not even know where Ryerson was, all I knew was that they needed a point guard.” What they got was a transformational player – a scoring guard that can get his own shot and dictate the defence, but has also grown to trust his talented teammates enough to be a willing passer. The best example of that was earlier this season when he dished out 15 assists against Windsor, tying the single-game school record.

When he’s not facilitating great offence, he’s competitive enough to get after it defensively, acting as a one-man blockade denying dribble penetration. Ryerson often gets credit for its fourth-ranked offence but it’s important to highlight the fact that they are also the fourth-ranked defence in the country, even more impressive when you consider that the Rams play at a much faster pace than Bishop’s and McGill, two RSEQ teams ahead of them in most defensive metrics.

Thanks to that two-way efficiency, everyone knows where Ryerson is now and they are expecting to be in a sold-out Mattamy Athletic Centre for the Final 8. In some ways it’s the house that Jahmal Jones helped retrofit, the same way he’s given the Rams program a facelift.

Make no mistake, though, he hasn’t done it alone. Jones is 1/3 of a trifecta that Ryerson head coach Roy Rana has built his program upon. His first recruiting class unearthed three gems that not only would go on to be among the best players in the country but would become the root of the team’s winning culture.

Bjorn Michaelsen, a 6-foot-8 forward from Quebec, would go on to be a four-time Academic All-Canadian and three-year captain. Jordon Gauthier, a volume scorer from Windsor, would reach stardom, becoming just the fourth player in Rams history to record 1,000 points and 500 rebounds, placing him fifth all-time in Ryerson scoring and sixth in rebounding. Along with Jones, they are the winningest class in school history.

Jones appreciates the help his fellow seniors provide. “They both bring toughness, Jordon brings the physicality and edge to our team. He is fearless, he will do whatever it takes to win,” he says. “Bjorn is known to be solid and the rock he saves us defensively he is so versatile on both ends of the floor he can guard every position. He just makes those around him at ease. They both bring different styles of leadership.”

On senior night last week, Jones went out in style with three men he came in with, putting on another spectacular display. In his last regular season game on campus, Jahmal scored 20-plus for the third straight contest, before leaving to a standing ovation. An understandably drained Jones understood the applause was largely because of what he’s accomplished over the past five years. “It was an emotional night, it was something I could not mentally prepare for.”

In a career where he’s been named both Ryerson’s male athlete of the year and rookie of the year, Jones leaves the program second all-time in scoring, first in assists and first in steals. When you consider he’s also sixth all-time in OUA scoring and a four-time OUA all-star, it’s clear he’s much more than a good player from a historically bad program. The three-year captain is an all-time great and he was good from day one, making the CIS all-rookie team back in 2010-11. He’s also been respected nationally, playing for team Canada at the Pan Am Games and World University Games.

Perhaps most impressive of all, he hasn’t missed a game in his five seasons at Ryerson, embodying the toughness and resilience Rana craved. Yet despite the countless accolades, team success is not on his decorated CV.

Ryerson is not new to hosting on the big stage – they’ve just never made it to their own party. After beating Ottawa in the uber competitive East bracket of the OUA quarter-finals in 2012, the Rams subsequently lost to the Gee-Gees in close games in 2013 and 2014, missing the OUA Final Four which they were hosting.

Missing out on nationals is still a tough topic for Jones. “It was very disappointing. It is something I try not to think about because Ryerson hosted the OUA finals the last couple years and we never got there,” he says.

The hope is that the Rams will apply that one-and-done heartbreak of previous years to the knockout style of this year’s Final 8. As hosts of the CIS event, Ryerson will get an automatic bid to the party they are throwing this year, but they are more focused on the process of playing the right way at the right time.

Talk to CIS coaches and they are split on what Ryerson’s legitimate chances are at Final 8. Some cite the team that blew out top-5 teams McMaster and Windsor. Others warn the Ottawa schools – Carleton and uOttawa – are by far and away the class of the country as they both easily dispatched the Rams. You can’t argue against Ryerson’s recent success. They finished the regular season playing their best basketball of the year with an 11-game winning streak. Their last loss, all the way back in November, is a distant memory. They only have three home loses since moving to Mattamy three years ago.

The hot play of late and the home court advantage is why Jones feels the time is now to cap his career with a championship. “It is going to be a great feeling especially if we win it all, opportunities like this do not come around often. A successful season for Ryerson is winning the national championship. I am in my last season, I do not have any more chances after this,” he said.

The operative word is chance. Jones took a chance on Ryerson. It’s come up aces in all aspects except for finishing the year off with team success. Now his eyes are solely set on the prize that will be awarded on his home floor. To consummate a historic career with a story book ending would seem farfetched given the odds against the Rams, yet Jones and Ryerson have come so far in such a short time – what’s one more leap of faith?

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett