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Head coach David Cox draws up a play at Saturday's scrimmage.

There were more fans in the Ryan Center for Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage than there were at any University of Rhode Island basketball game last season.

The Rams played to an empty arena due to COVID-19 restrictions. Fans are slated to return this year and, with about a month until the season opener, they got a sneak preview with the scrimmage.

It was good to be back, for the people on both sides of the cheering.

“It felt really good, felt almost all the way normal,” head coach David Cox said. “I know our guys really appreciated the energy in here. Thankful as always to the Rhody faithful. I knew that they would show up as soon as they had the opportunity. We really enjoyed the practice and enjoyed the enviroment today.”

The Rams will return to the court for real on Nov. 9 for the season opener against Boston University. They’ll be hoping to improve on a disappointing 2020-21 season in which they faltered down the stretch and finished 10-15.

An experienced core will lead the Rams, and they carried the day in the scrimmage, particularly in the paint. Makhi Mitchell and Antwan Walker dominated down low, taking advantage of their younger teammates for big production. Mitchell is back after missing most of last season with a knee injury. He’s healthy and ready to go. Twin brother Makhel sat out the scrimmage with a groin issue that isn’t expected to be a maor problem.

“We’ve got some dynamic guards who can shoot the ball but also make plays off the bounce,” Cox said. “And we’ve got a solid core of bigs down there.”

Three-guard lineups figure to be common for the Rams, and several such combinations were on display in the scrimmage. Jeremy Sheppard, Ishmael Leggett and transfer Ishmael El-Amin teamed up on the white team and led the most fluid stretch of the scrimmage. Jalen Carey also worked in.

“Last year we were a new team,” Sheppard said. “That was the main thing about this year, building chemistry and playing with everybody.”

Sheppard is using an extra year of eligibility this season after his lone season on the court for URI was a strange one.

“Last year, as a team, we didn’t do too well, and individually, I feel I didn’t do too well and I could do more to help this team go further,” Sheppard said. “It was definitely a no-brainer to come back. I love my teammates. I love my coaches.”

Leggett flashed potential as a freshman, while El-Amin is providing a veteran presence. His long bounce pass on the break was one of the highlights of Saturday’s proceedings.

“Presence is the right way to describe him,” Cox said. “From day one when he got here, he kind of arrived. He’s a confident kid but he’s also a humble young man. He’s going to bring a lot to this program.”

URI fans got their first glimpse of redshirt freshmen Tres Berry and Ileri Ayo-Faleye, plus true freshmen Abdou Samb and Sebastian Thomas. All are still working to get up to speed, so URI may not go much deeper than its eight-man nucleus of experience.

“Today was a big day in that direction,” Cox said of finding rotations. “Guys were going to start to establish roles for themselves with their play.”

Fans can get another look at the Rams for an exhibition game against Johnson & Wales on Nov. 4.

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