Official preseason practices began Monday for the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team, and just a glimpse at workouts revealed the biggest difference between last year’s team and this year’s.
The reinforcements have arrived.
“For us, it’s depth,” senior Jeff Dowtin said of what’s changed. “We had a lot of tired legs towards the end of the year. We’ve got a lot of fresh new bodies and everybody’s getting accustomed to everything. The confidence is definitely there. We’re just excited to get back on the court.”
A busy offseason saw a host of departures and arrivals as the Rams remade the supporting cast that surrounds their returning core. One transfer who was already in the fold, two junior-college additions and three freshmen have given URI the influx it needed.
“It’s always good to have talent, competition, depth, so guys can bring it on a daily basis,” head coach David Cox said. “We’ve seen that since the summer. I think this is probably the deepest roster we’ve had in some time, talent-wise. I’m not sure about the star power of the E.C. Matthews, the Jared Terrells, the Hassan Martins; however, we do have a very deep and talented and athletic team.”
Quality depth was missing last year and it showed in a number of ways. Dowtin, Cyril Langevine and Fatts Russell all ranked in the top 22 in the Atlantic 10 in minutes per game. The freshman class filled in gaps and showed promise, but by the end of the year, there were only so many buttons to push. In the Rams’ season-ending A-10 tournament loss to St. Bonaventure, the big three plus freshman Tyrese Martin all played at least 35 of the 40 minutes. Similar totals had been logged in the first two games of the tournament, including a leave-it-all-on-the-floor upset of VCU. It was no surprise when the Rams abruptly ran out of steam, losing a 15-point first-half lead and getting outscored by 19 in the second half. Their surprise run ended there.
“I don’t want to make excuses,” Dowtin said after the game.
“We were all fatigued,” Cox admitted.
More talent is at the top of every coach’s offseason wish list, no matter the makeup of its roster. It was particularly necessary for the Rams. They just didn’t have enough.
“Huge priority,” Cox said. “That goes without saying for any team when you come up a little bit short of what your expectations were – you reevaluate. I think we had a talented roster last year. It just wasn’t deep enough and we were relatively young. We got a little bit older, we added a little bit more talent, which gives us a little bit more depth. Hopefully, they continue to grow and their maturity shows up in those big games and we’ll have a fighting chance.”
Ryan Preston and former walk-on Will Leviton were the only players lost to graduation, but additional room opened up when Christion Thompson, Omar Silverio and Michael Tertsea entered the NCAA’s transfer portal. Marial Mading, a freshman who had joined the team midseason but was taking a redshirt season, also departed.
At that time, the incoming class featured Georgetown transfer Antwan Walker and high school commits Mekhi Long and Gregory Hammond. Cox and his staff went to work buttressing that group with junior-college transfers Jeremy Sheppard and D.J. Johnson and high schooler Jacob Toppin.
It’s a group that provides more than just additional bodies. Walker and Sheppard have more experience than the average newcomers, while the freshmen have drawn rave reviews so far.
“We have a lot of talent and obviously everybody’s improved,” Langevine said. “We’re excited to get back out on the floor.”
A deeper rotation will make a difference all season and should particularly help the cause come March, but it’s also having an impact now, when the games are still weeks away. The competition level at practice has ticked up.
“Everybody’s going at it each other,” Dowtin said. “We’ve got 12 or 13 guys, we’re playing hard, playing fast. No more tired legs. We can just sub people in and out. When you step onto that court, everybody’s giving their all.”
The Rams are eager to see where it takes them, as they seek a return to the NCAA Tournament.
“Definitely some unfinished business,” Dowtin said.
Hell have a lot of help taking care of it.