KINGSTON – If all goes to plan for the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team this winter, fans will notice changes all across the board. From personnel to coaching style to on and off-court chemistry, the Rams say a lot has changed since they last played publicly, six months ago.
All this from a team that returns their entire starting lineup, and only shed three players from their roster in the offseason. With a gaggle of newcomers making their presence felt in pre-season practices, the Rams feel they are more talented and are already having more fun than they did during last year’s 18-win campaign.
“Our chemistry is amazing right now,” junior Fatts Russell said. “Everyone gets along, we always hang together. Last year, it was difficult. We bumped heads a lot. This year, we’re like brothers. Honestly, this time.
“When we practice against each other, we’re going at each other’s necks. As soon as we leave practice, you see everyone laughing and hugging each other. That’s the difference from last year. We’d come at each other last year, and hold it against each other while we walk into the lockerroom.”
Practices have been war-like, with the starting five of Russell, Cyril Langevine, Jeff Dowtin, Tyrese Martin and Jermaine Harris doing battle with the likes of newcomers Jeremy Sheppard, Antwan Walker, Jacob Toppin, Gregory Hammond and D.J. Johnson.
Adding to the atmosphere at practice is a changed head coach. David Cox was always the more relaxed yin to his predecessor Dan Hurley’s yang, but the now second-year head coach has decided to notch things up a level.
“Lately, you couldn’t tell the difference,” between a Hurley practice and a Cox practice, said Russell. “This year, Coach Cox ramped it up like 100 percent. It’s been difficult, a little bit of an adjustment for us. We got the laid-back Coach Cox last year, but this year it’s been totally different. It’s a mirror of Coach Hurley, honestly.”
“I’ve always been a pretty emotional guy, especially when it comes to this game,” Cox said. “After getting through last season and seeing the potential of this team – understanding how hard I have to push them on a daily basis – I had to make an adjustment. I had to grow as a coach.
“Every day we’re out here preparing as if we’re trying to achieve [our ultimate] goal. Right now is our time. The guys have been wonderful. The upperclassmen have been true leaders. Jeff, Cyril and Fatts. The sophomores have also taken a huge step.”
Martin and Harris both started as freshmen and figure to be in the top five again this year. Martin successfully underwent surgery to correct a knee injury that hobbled him for most of last season. Even with that limitation, he still averaged 8.1 points a game.
Dana Tate rounds out the sophomore class. A key reserve last season, Tate has bulked up in the offseason, adding 20 extra pounds onto his 6-foot-7 frame.
“We’ve been beating each other up,” in practice, Russell said. “We’re getting used to each other’s moves. It’s fun still, but we’re ready to compete against somebody else.”
The team will have plenty of chances to gauge their improvements in the coming weeks. They defeated Boston College 77-70 in a closed scrimmage last Sunday. On Tuesday, they hosted an open practice at the Ryan Center.
The now-annual ‘secret’ scrimmages are closed to the public, and typically mark the first real step toward the regular season for most teams. Cox said he intends to use the tilt against BC as a dress rehearsal of sorts for the upcoming season.
“We do watch a little bit of film,” he said. “We’ll prepare for them, but not the same as a [real] game. We’ll go over a few of [BC’s] actions, definitely go over personnel. We’ll be somewhat prepared, just trying to get the guys in the rhythm of regular game scenarios.
“We’re playing on the road, so we’ll travel. All that stuff will be new to them. We’ll get there early enough to go through warmups the way we normally go through warmups.”
“For the younger guys, and D.J., who hasn’t experienced being part of this [atmosphere], it’s important for them,” Russell said. “Greg, Makhi, they should all have fun.”
Russell is one of three juniors on the team, but the only one of that group who has been with the Rams since his freshmen campaign. Promise shown in Russell’s first year shifted into frustration last year, when Russell shot 22 percent on 3-pointers and was nearly always on the court, averaging 34 minutes a contest.
“We know what it feels like to lose a lot of games in a row,” Russell said. “We have a lot of experience with Cyril and Jeff, who are seniors. We don’t want them to go out any other way than [with an NCAA Tournament bid].”
“[I’ve been focused on] getting more consistent on my jump shot. I’ve been working on it a lot. I’ve been showing good progress with it. Just focusing on that and being more of a leader and playmaker.”