Senior Fatts Russell is an All-America candidate in Kingston
By KEVIN McNAMARA
The practices sound the same but look very different these days in Kingston, R.I.
The intensity that David Cox and his coaching staff bring to the court remains. So do the hoots and hollers of the Ram players, the majority of whom work out without Covid-protecting masks judging by the video clips URI has released this fall.
But fist bumps are now air bumps. High fives are swings-and-misses. Hugs are non-existent.
It’s a very new, strange college basketball world.
Few teams in the country have grinded through as many workouts and practices as the Rhode Island Rams. Unlike many schools, URI allowed some students to remain on its campus through the summer. That included the majority of the men’s basketball team.
For weeks in July and August the Rams worked in small groups, both on and off the court. The team never reported a positive COVID-19 case, even though everyone knows that danger lingered with every nasal swab. Now that the start of what promises to be an uneven, bizarre 2020-21 season is here with four games in five days in Bubbleville at Mohegan Sun, Cox can see the finish line.
“I’m praying as hard as I’ve prayed in the last six months,” Cox said late last week. “To get this close and still have the uncertainty, it’s almost taken control of my body. I just want to get to Monday when we make our way down there and then to Wednesday when we finally play.”
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|Atlantic 10 pick||6th|
|Non-Conference Nightmare||Arizona State|
|Key Newcomer||Jalen Carey|
|Top Frosh||Ishmael Leggett|
|Top Foes||Remy Martin (Ariz. State); Jalen Crutcher (Dayton); Tre Mitchell (UMass)|
Like everyone else in college basketball, Cox has seen one program after another fall victim to the virus over the last several months. If it’s not Atlantic 10 brother Fordham, it’s UConn and Seton Hall of the Big East, California and Utah out West or Tennessee down South.
“The virus doesn’t have any favorites,” he said. “We just want to give ourselves an opportunity to have a season.”
The virus is destined to wreak havoc with virtually every team’s schedule. That’s already happened with Rhody, but this far with a very fortunate twist. The Rams begin the season with a schedule that the Rhode Island Breakers and BABC South would love: four games in five days.
But in a bow to COVID-19, the slate of opponents was flipped two days before tipoff. Because Baylor coach Scott Drew came up positive over the weekend, the Bears won’t make it to Mohegan. Rhody was tapped to fill in at the high-profile 2k Empire Classic so expected games against Stephen F. Austin and Towson are out. An opener against 18th ranked Arizona State and Thanksgiving matchup versus either No. 3 Villanova or Boston College is now on.
The flip elevates URI’s schedule strength, something Cox had worried about since a road game at Providence College was wiped out by the Friars. Rhody’s other two games at Mohegan remain against South Florida and San Francisco.
“The four games in five days is unprecedented in college basketball,” Cox said. “It makes us battle-tested. We’ll come out of there knowing a lot about ourselves and what we have to do.”
Like all teams the Rams don’t know exactly what they have right now. No controlled scrimmages or exhibition games will keep coaches everywhere guessing. Actually the Rams do know they have Fatts Russell, and he’s a great piece to build around. One of 50 players nationally named to the Naismith Trophy Watch List, Russell is a candidate to be the top player in the Atlantic 10. He’s an elite scorer (18.8 ppg.) and always looking to pick a ballhandler’s pocket on defense.
For his first three years at URI Russell teamed nicely with the always-steady Jeff Dowtin. Now he’ll lead the offense but Cox has a few talented newcomers to pair with his senior star. Jeremy Sheppard is a 6-1 guard who can handle the ball and make 3-pointers. He was a star freshman at East Carolina in 2017 where he averaged 9.2 points and made the all-rookie team in The American. Two years of junior college ball followed but he failed to gain academic eligibility last year in Kingston.
The other key backcourt piece is Jalen Carey, a transfer from Syracuse who was a highly-touted, Top 50 recruit in 2019. After coming off the bench in limited minutes as a freshman, Carey started the Cuse’s opening two games a year ago before injuring his thumb. He never returned and ultimately opted to transfer.
More transfers loom large in the frontcourt. While holdovers Jermaine Harris (who Cox says is his most improved player) and Antwan Walker are keys, Malik Martin (Charlotte) and 6-10 twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell (Maryland) own major potential.
“We won’t know exactly who we are until we get punched in the mouth,” Cox said. “When we get out there it will be our first time with this group. I’m not sure how we’re going to respond.”