KINGSTON - Right from his first moments on campus, Dan Hurley’s practices developed a reputation for their grueling intensity. After six years full of wind sprints and full-contact drills, the URI men’s basketball team has returned to work in the preseason, with a look and a new, more relaxed approach to practice.
“It’s a lot more learning,” this year than last, said sophomore guard Fatts Russell. “We’re young. We had to slow the pace of practice down, but we’re starting to pick it back up.”
With two new assistant coaches, a new head coach and five true freshman, the Rams don’t have much choice this season but to start over. First year head coach David Cox knows that the loss of last year’s senior class - the winningest in school history - means it can’t be business as usual for the Rams.
“Losing those five seniors has been a little bit of a culture shock to me,” he said, following a practice session Tuesday. “We take for granted those past two years. They were experienced guys who knew what it takes to win at this level.”
To ingratiate the new players, Cox will lean on a small coterie of players that played key roles in the team’s two consecutive NCAA appearances. Russell’s role increased incrementally as last year wore on, and starting point guard Jeff Dowtin may be just a junior this year, but he’s been a mainstay of the Rhody rotation for two full years now.
“Looking for them to be loud, vocal leaders,” Cox said of the duo. “Leaders with their voices and their body language as well. The freshmen look up to them, they’ve been through the fire. Everything they do, everything they say and the manner in which they do and say it, goes a long way.”
Joining those two stars as leaders is Christion Thompson, a redshirt junior from Louisiana who has spent most of his collegiate career sidelined with injuries. Standing in at 6-foot-4, he showed great defensive flashes and an ability to shoot the 3-pointer in his freshman campaign in 2016, but knee issues caused him to lose a step before being shelved for all of last season.
“It was a good experience,” Thompson said. “I was able to learn a lot off the court. It gave me a lot of time to get back to where I wanted to be.
“Wanting me to be out there last year, made me not take this for granted. Made me cherish this a little more.”
In addition to being a leader, Cox is hoping to get plenty of basketball utility out of Thompson.
“Christion has always been a very tough guy, tough defender,” he said. “His physicality is very necessary. He is going to have been this year’s version of Stan Robinson.”
“I can fill his role,” Thompson said. “He brought a lot to the team. Move around [positions one through four], be that guy the team needs to do whatever.”
The incoming class shouldn’t make life too difficult for their slightly older teammates. The incoming class was highly-touted by national recruiting services, and brings some much-needed height into the fold.
“They’ve all had their moments, and they’ve all had their days where I’m scratching my head,” Cox said of the freshmen. “That’s freshmen basketball in and of itself. It’s a very talented group, but they have so much to learn. Right now, it’s heavy minds and heavy feet.”
“They all bring something different,” said Russell. “Dana Tate can really shoot the ball. Jermaine [Harris] can shoot too [but] he’s bigger, can rebound. Tyrese [Martin] is really, supremely athletic. Omar [Silverio] is a knock-down shooter.”
Harris comes in as the marquee name, a 6-foot-8 forward who the Rams fully expect to be able to step in and compete for heavy minutes right away. He spent Tuesday’s practice riding an exercise bike, but there is no long-term injury concern according to Cox.
Height is the common theme for the newcomers: Silverio at 6-foot-4 is the smallest, while Martin (6-foot-6), Tate (6-foot-7) and late addition Aris Tsourgiannis (6-foot-8) figure to add much-needed depth to the Rams frontcourt.
There are plenty of fingers in the pie when it comes to the education of the Rhody freshmen. The two newest assistants on staff - John Carroll and Kevin Sutton - bring a combined 70 seasons of collegiate coaching experience to help offset Cox’s relative inexperience.
“Those are my guys,” said Thompson of the duo. “I talk to them every day. Work out with Coach Sutton, talk to Coach Carroll every day. We’re a big family already.”
“When you add John Carroll and Kevin Sutton to a staff, [you’re adding] teachers of the game with tremendous experience,” Cox added.
Players were also quick to sing the praises of Cox himself, who had the ringing endorsement of the lockerroom when Hurley bolted this past offseason.
“He’s a very good teacher,” Russell said. “He’s very patient. If I was in his position, I would have lost it [already]. He’s great at player development.
“We look at him for other things too, not just basketball.”
The Rams will host rapper Lil Baby tonight as part of their Midnight Madness event. They play against Pace in an exhibition on October 25, before opening the regular season at home against Bryant on November 6.