02/19/2015 05:25 EST | Updated 04/21/2015 05:59 EDT

Rana has led remarkable turnaround in almost six seasons with Ryerson Rams

TORONTO - When Roy Rana walked into his first meeting with Ryerson's men's basketball team some five-and-a-half years ago, he asked his players: What do you want?

To win a national championship, they told their new coach.

It was a tall order for a team that was mired in mediocrity. Ryerson was known for producing fashion designers and journalists. Certainly not basketball players.

But when the Rams host Queen's on Friday night at Mattamy Athletic Centre, it will cap the most successful regular season in Rams' history, a remarkable turnaround that has seen them win 26 of their 29 games — they're 16-2 in league play— and remain firmly affixed in a best-ever position of third place in the Canadian university rankings.

Ryerson will host the CIS Final 8 March 12-15, and Rana believes a national championship is within his players' grasp. But the program's success, he said, won't be defined by a CIS title.

"This has been a hugely special season," Rana said. "And for us to evaluate and for us to appreciate the season based on one (national championship) game, it would be a huge disservice to all the work and all the fun times, and all the challenges we've had over. . . for some of them, five years.

"We dream about winning it all, but we'll appreciate much more than just that."

Jahmal Jones of Mississauga, Ont., Bjorn Michaelsen of Otterburn Park, Que., and Jordon Gauthier of Windsor, Ont., will be honoured Friday night as Ryerson's graduating fifth-year players, part of Rana's original class of freshmen. He admits to having a soft spot for the trio.

"Although two years ago I might have said 'I want to get rid of all of them,'" he said, with a laugh.

"I've spent five years with these guys, for a lot of those five years more time with them than I do with my own kids," he said. "And most of that time it's in conflict, it's in high pressure situations, you're demanding, you're asking for more constantly.

"But it also builds a very powerful bond, because you go through things together. You go through great highs and lows and wins and losses. So absolutely I have a special place for them. They're the first group of kids I've coached for five years in my whole career. It's been pretty special."

The Rams' record in the five years previous to Rana's arrival was a woeful 38-115. Jones, a six-foot guard who is averaging 17 points a game, knew little about Ryerson before Rana came recruiting.

"The school was never known to be a powerhouse in basketball. It had the whole 'Rye-High' feel to it," Jones said.

Jones had dreams of playing in the NCAA. His mom hoped he'd go to No. 1-ranked Carleton. Rana sold Jones on the chance to be a cornerstone in his program rebuild.

"I have a stubborn personality," Jones said. "I wanted to go somewhere where it was going to be a challenge, where I could try to make a name for myself at the time. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could contribute and play and leave a legacy or a path behind for others."

Ryerson's emergence comes amid heady days for basketball in Toronto. The Raptors are in the midst of a franchise-best season, and the city has produced back-to-back NBA No. 1 draft picks in Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins — both of whom Rana coached at the national youth and junior level.

Rana was hired in 2009, arriving from rough and tumble Eastern Commerce high school where he'd guided the team to four consecutive provincial titles. He also had a background working with at-risk kids, as a volunteer at youth shelters Covenant House and Second Base, and then as the director of North York's Alternative to Expulsion program, where his job was to re-integrate kids back into the school after they'd been expelled, often for violent offences.

"That certainly helped carry over into coaching, on the court," Rana said. "I was never really intimidated by working with anyone."

It shows. At a recent game at the MAC, Rana's booming voice can be heard over the din of the crowd.

"For me, it's motivational tactics. I had to get used (Rana's coaching style), I was stubborn and kind of defensive at first," said the soft-spoken Jones. "But as long as you play hard ... you can make mistakes, but just play hard. I learned that when I first came in."

Jones, who's in Ryerson's business technology management program, hopes to play basketball professionally, and then pursue a career in business, preferably combining his IT specialty with his love of fantasy sports.

It will be a bittersweet moment, he said, when the final buzzer blows on his career as a Ram.

"I don't think of it as sad though," said Jones, "I think of it as a celebration."

Carleton leads the CIS basketball rankings ahead of No. 2 Ottawa.