Fatts Russell leads a talented Rhody Rams team this season. (Photo courtesy URI Athletics).
By KEVIN McNAMARA
As David Cox and his Rhode Island Rams continue to show up every day at the Ryan Center and put the requisite work in for the upcoming season, a dark cloud always lies in the distance.
Like every other college basketball team in the country, the Rams know that the coronavirus is a constant concern. COVID-19 is spreading, in Rhode Island and around the nation. The NCAA has put in controls to compete amid the spread and getting on the court in two weeks’ time is the goal of every team. But as issues with the virus at Connecticut, Fordham, Marquette, Villanova and other programs have shown, avoiding a false step remains more important than polishing your jump shot.
“We’ve touched on it but we haven’t spent a whole lot of time on it to be honest because those types of conversations are somewhat demoralizing,” URI coach David Cox said Thursday at the Atlantic 10’s Media Day. “We’re trying to be as optimistic as possible. I want these guys to be comfortable and confident that we’re going to have a season and we’re going to have a successful season.”
URI’s players have spent time on campus since June. As cases flared up when students returned to campus in September, the players did their best to avoid close contact with others. They continue to get tested on a weekly basis and will ramp up to three tests a week. The team will report to Mohegan Sun the week of November 23 and prepare for four games in five days beginning Nov. 25 against Stephen F. Austin.
“We’ll deal with whatever comes our way when the time comes,” Cox said. “As of right now we have a schedule. We’re anticipating getting to Mohegan Sun a couple days before Thanksgiving, quarantining for a day or what have you, and getting out there and playing. That’s our focus right now, Mohegan Sun and that gauntlet for four games in five days, which is like an AAU type of event.”
Cox and senior guards Fatts Russell and Jeremy Sheppard spoke of the challenge that awaits in Connecticut. The four games will take place with no fans, but some serious competition. URI has played holiday events in Jamaica and Hawaii in recent years but this is a different level challenge.
“It’s not Jamaica or Hawaii down at Mohegan Sun,” Russell said with a laugh. “The most difficult will just be the four games in five days. We’ll lean on our trainers and we believe in them.”
Cox welcomes a host of new, but talented, additions to a team that is picked sixth in the Atlantic-10. Sheppard, a talented combo guard who Russell says “is fast like me,” sat out last season in Kingston. Jalen Carey, a transfer from Syracuse, is a potentially dynamic backcourt addition and Charlotte transfer Malik Martin will be a factor at the wing as well.
Up front the Rams return Jermaine Harris and Antwan Walker, two big men who Cox says “have taken huge, huge steps forward.” Yet the addition of Maryland transfers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell gives the Rams two 6-10 big men with unique skills.
Cox says he has no idea on a starting five just yet and it’s clear he’ll have to use nearly his entire roster at Mohegan.
“This year is completely different,” he said. “Normally by this time we would have had a couple of Blue & White scrimmages, a scrimmage against another college team and an exhibition game. Without any of that it is hard to evaluate these guys without a true game situation.
“Everybody will get a shot and opportunity to get out there and showcase what they can do,” he said, “and we’ll have to evaluate after this Mohegan Sun event to figure out what direction we need to go in.”
But back to the coronavirus. Just after Cox spoke, UConn coach Dan Hurley was lamenting the problems his team is fighting. The Huskies had a positive test (unknown how many) in the last week and are in the midst of a 14-day quarantine. That length of time is recommended by the NCAA and CDC, although some schools around the country are choosing slightly easier protocols.
With the virus clearly in a `community spread’ stage around the East (and in the Ocean State) remaining virus-free is the challenge that all successful teams must conquer.
“It will take a tremendous degree of discipline and a tremendous degree of fortune,” Cox said. “We just have to pray for it. I am very much aware of people who have done pretty much all the right things and made one slip up at a restaurant or a gas station or a public gas station and acquired the virus. Our guys have handled this in a very mature manner and been here since June and done the right things. I continue to pray every night that the following day we don’t receive any negative news.”