The cancellation of March Madness. Key players transferring out. New talent transferring in. An NBA Draft waiting game. A precariously thin roster. No in-person communications amid turbulent times. NCAA waiver success. Scheduling issues. Unknowns hanging over everything.
How much of a whirlwind have the last six months been for the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball program?
“Everything you can imagine and more,” head coach David Cox said.
As the calendar turns to October, the Rams haven’t quite come out the other side, but there are signs of light. Players are on the court and Cox fully believes that there will be basketball played.
“Oh I believe we’ll be playing. I don’t have much of a concern about that. We will be playing games, no doubt about that,” Cox said. “And I think we’ll be playing a good slate of games, too. We have a good slate of home games already scheduled. Whether the fan base will be able to come and watch those games is the big question right now. College basketball will be played. We will be playing our season. We will recover some of the games we lost and make the best out of it.”
Most players were on campus for offseason workouts in July and August. With campus mostly deserted otherwise, the Rams were permitted to have their full squad on the court at once, following clearance by testing. Players went home for a brief summer break in late August, which restarted the protocol. With the student body now back on campus, university and state guidelines are currently limiting all URI teams to pods of five players. With no positive tests for two weeks, the number can increase.
“You know who that hurts the most? My body,” Cox joked. “But the workouts have been really good. I think that because they’re in smaller groups, we’ve been able to focus a lot more on the details that will count when game time comes. Not as much big picture. A lot more refined, detail-oriented workouts. And I’ve noticed on an individual basis, I think our guys are improving.”
It’s a new-look roster following the wild offseason. The departures of Mekhi Long, Tyrese Martin and Jacob Toppin – plus the graduation of Jeff Dowtin and Cyril Langevine – gave way to the arrival of transfers Makhel Mitchell, Makhi Mitchell, Jalen Carey, Allen Betrand and Malik Martin. The Mitchells, Carey and Martin will be immediately eligible thanks to NCAA waivers, and will be joined in the new wave by freshmen Tres Berry and Ishmael Leggett. Another freshman, Ileri Ayo-Faleye, is likely to redshirt. Fatts Russell put his name in the NBA Draft but later withdrew it. He’s flanked by Antwan Walker, Jermaine Harris, Jeremy Sheppard and D.J. Johnson in the returning player pool.
Constructing that roster on the fly, given all the circumstances, was a heavy lift.
“Going through transfers is an unfortunate part of this business but it’s part of this business,” Cox said. “It’s something that you come year-to-year to expect, especially at a program like this where you recruit talented players and they go out on the floor and produce. Some of those guys still have aspirations of playing at a different level or what have you. That is a challenge but it’s an expected challenge.
“What’s not expected is to have that type of challenge and also deal with a pandemic and also deal with civil unrest and not be able to see your guys in person and not be able to go in and recruit in person. That made this a very, very daunting task. I give a tremendous amount of credit to the assistant coaches who were ready for the task, who jumped right at it, who identified, who started communicating and building relationships even before getting me involved. It made my job a lot easier.”
Even as basketball begins to return to center stage, conversations about social justice and racism have remained at the forefront. Cox said players will be around campus in the coming weeks, encouraging fellow students to register to vote.
“We’ve had some really in-depth conversations, some truthful conversations, and it’s been backed up by the facts, by history,” Cox said. “You see their eyes open really wide when they hear about things they had no idea transpired, when they realize how we as a people have gotten to this position, when they also realize it’s not just black people, it’s many people of color who have faced these issues and obviously, women as well. It’s been an eye-opening experience. They’ve been very receptive to it and I do think it’s hit a chord with them.”
Soon after returning to practice in September, the Rams learned their marching orders for the season as the NCAA declared Nov. 25 the start date for college basketball nationwide. The non-conference schedule has taken shape since then, with games secured against Seton Hall, Boston College and Western Kentucky, plus two games in the Hall of Fame Tipoff at Mohegan Sun, which has been rescheduled for Nov. 28 and 29. The annual matchup with Providence has been postponed, while a meeting with Brown is on hold, with the Ivy League canceling competition through the fall semester. The Rams anticipate adding games to the schedule, something the whole staff is working on.
“The first step is we’ve got to fill these games, so we know exactly who we can play and where we’re traveling,” Cox said. “In filling these games, we have to go through that process – are we allowed to go to that place? Can we go there and safely come back without having to quarantine? We’ve got to still figure out the schedule. Once we figure out the schedule, we’ll move to how can we safely travel to and from places and how we can kind of incubate ourselves in hotels and things of that nature.”
The Atlantic 10 schedule also remains a work in progress. Cox said several possibilities have been discussed, including bubble options.
“They have talked about everything, literally everything,” Cox said. “They haven’t come to any conclusions. We still have to wait to see how this plays out with power fives. Unfortunately, we have to see who they’re going to choose to play, how many conference games they’re going to choose to play, how many non-conference games are available for them to play, which games of those are still attractive to them and then whether or not they’re going to play them. Then we can make our decisions. We’re in a holding pattern.”