RHODY TAKES ON BOSTON UNIVERSITY TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 9 AT 7PM ON YURVIEW, COX CHANNEL 4 IN RHODE ISLAND AND STREAMING ON WATCH.YURVIEW.COM.
Despite early November’s mild temperatures in New England, college basketball season is upon us. David Cox’s Rhode Island Rams men’s basketball team will begin its regular season Tuesday night at the Ryan Center against Patriot League favorite Boston University. Tip is scheduled for 7pm.
It’s an important year for the Rams as they look to bounce back after an unpredictable and uneven 2020-21 season. It’s now Cox’s team from top-to-bottom with no holdovers from the previous era. Blend that reality with increased experience and continuity across the roster – and a pandemic that appears to be softening – and there’s room for optimism in Kingston.
I caught up with Cox to touch on a variety of topics related to the program in advance of Tuesday’s tilt.
Chris DiSano: For those who may not be familiar, can you walk through the newcomers you welcome to the program?
David Cox: Let’s start with Ishmael El-Amin.
I think he’s a terrific college guard. Has a great understanding of the game. He got gradually better and better throughout his Ball State career and ended his career there as an all-conference player averaging about 16 points per game. He shot the cover off the ball that year. He gives us added value as another ball handler, a guy who can shoot it, a guy with experience, and he has two traits that come directly from his father (former UConn national champion Khalid El-Amin).
He has a competitive spirit and he’s a great leader. He doesn’t mince words and is at the point in his life where he wants to win, pursue a professional career, and he knows how important it is for guys to be on the same page. He’s been a breath of fresh air in that regard.
Sebastian Thomas is a local kid we brought in with the intent of redshirting him. But he’s played so well since he’s arrived here on campus that we’re not going to go that route. It started in the summer and he has grown and grown. He has a tremendous work ethic, is a great competitor and a true point guard. I told him when I recruited him that he reminded me a lot of Jeff (Dowtin) given the pace he plays, he’s cerebral, a pass-first kid and guys like playing with him… and that has been the case. He’s advanced faster than we thought he would and it’s a good problem to have.
Abdou Samb is getting acclimated to the college game. He has a wonderful work ethic, is skilled. He missed last season which has slowed his overall development a little bit, but he’s getting good work against the twins (Makhi & Makhel Mitchell) and Antwan (Walker) on a daily basis. We are going to redshirt him this year.
Finally, while not new faces — our two, redshirt freshman – Tres Berry has been a little banged up after rolling his ankle again, but we expect him back soon. He’s a dog, a glue guy and big-time defender and competitor. He can knock down perimeter jumpers, particularly corner jumpers, he has a great lefty wingspan and a ferocious competitor spirit. He can give us value off the bench being a defensive guy and an energy guy.
The same with Ileri Ayo-Faleye… he’s tall and long and a tremendous athlete. We’re going to expect energy, high motors, and defense from both of those guys.
CDD: New addition, assistant coach Todd Bozeman, commented about the respect he has for your basketball mind in a recent interview. What does it mean to have a guy like this – with his 20+ years of experience and acumen – on your staff, and to hear those comments… it must be gratifying.
DC: Absolutely. And it was a huge pickup for this program and for me, specifically. He was a great get for us. We talk about “gets” in recruiting but he is an important add for us because of the things you mention. The experience he brings, his ability to effectively communicate with players and staff. He’s a fun guy to be around, he’s a basketball guy who loves the game… and we have some connections back to the DC area in coaching AAU together. I was supposed to take my first college job for him when he was at Morgan State and ended up going to Pittsburgh instead. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and always have.
When I was young, he was the youngest black coach that I had ever seen in my lifetime to coach at that high level, so you can imagine when I was 18, 20 years old how he was one of the guys I looked up to. I got to meet him and we crossed paths, started working together and have been in touch since. It made sense. We know each other and I know he has my back. And I get to bring him back home to Rhody and that gives him an even extra boost of energy. It’s been great.
— Rhody MBB (@RhodyMBB) November 8, 2021
CD: Many coaches talk about how it helps teams when they can play for a senior. Do you subscribe to that notion and, when you have a guy like Jeremy Sheppard, do you see the guys coalescing around him? It might be only his second year playing but his third year with the program and he’s a massive part of the mix.
DC: Yes, he’s a great talent so when we talk about the fact that he’s been in school – we kind of refer to him as Uncle Shep sometimes (laughs) – he’s an older, young man who has had a lot of different experiences from ECU to JUCO to here… and he’s a super talent who guys enjoy playing with as well. He has a very efficient game. His leadership now has had to grow because he’s a very tough competitor but a quiet young man. We’ve talked about it over the last year or so and he’s worked on that and begun to come out of his shell – and guys are responding to him the right way.
CD: Do you see him being more vocal across the board – on the floor, in the huddle, in other areas? Where do you see it coming out?
DC: Yes, he’s coming out everywhere and I’m glad you asked that question. First it started to trickle out on the floor, then in post practice huddles, then the film room, weight room – and when we hit lulls in practice he has not been shy about trying to motivate the guys; it’s coming out in spurts now.
CD: Let’s talk about a guy who made some great strides last year. It’s huge that Makhi is healthy again and primed to be a big contributor – but Makhel was a guy who was a bit of an enigma when he arrived. He ended up having a terrific year last year. How gratifying was that for you and the staff from a player development perspective and what do you expect this year, beginning against BU?
DC: He’ll assume an even bigger role because we now know what he’s capable of… and he continued to work throughout the summer. It’s good for him, his confidence – he’s played a lot of second fiddle and been injured quite a bit, so for him to have the opportunity to play… I’m sure he looked forward to playing with Makhi as he does this year… but he had the opportunity to be out there on his own and he grew and matured. His game continued to develop. He’s coming into the year this year with a lot of confidence.
CD: From a continuity standpoint, what gains do you see with a more traditional offseason and greater experience – to a man – within the program itself?
DC: The system that I run, this hybrid Princeton-like system, it takes a while to figure out the pattern and then once you figure that out, you have to start using your brain and making reads. That usually takes more than a year and it’s hard to bring in a whole bunch of new pieces. And you have to have buy-in. Last year, perfect storm… we probably had too many new players, probably didn’t have the buy-in that I needed to make it work, from all players on the floor at all times. It’s much different now. We have buy-in, belief in the system, comfort in the system, and now they’re picking it apart and finding tweaks to it on their own. That’s been rewarding to see.
CD: Let’s shift to defense. I know you spoke on the recent Coach’s Show that you’d like to press more this year. You think to past VCU teams that pressed to turn over other teams. We also know there are other reasons to press be it tempo, etc. Is there a signature to the press identity this year?
DC: In general – and this goes back to the tremendous amount of success we had a few years back – we’d go man-to-man, pressure defense 94 feet and it wasn’t to steal the ball but it was to wear teams down. Yes, you could be disruptive and possibly force some turnovers, but more than anything the constant pressure wears teams down. It takes them out of their rhythm. What we noticed was even the teams that shot the ball well, once they got the open look as the game progressed, their legs weren’t underneath them. I want to get back to that. We have guards who are more than capable of wearing teams, eating a little clock, dictating pace, and turnovers would be the icing. We’ll probably mix in a ¾ zone press as well to add a little wrinkle.
CD: Now that you’ve been a head coach in the A-10 for a few years, what perhaps is something you’ve developed a greater appreciation for by being in that chair?
DC: I’ve gained a whole different level of respect for the level of coaching – even as an assistant coach, but now that I’m out there as the head coach and seeing the in-game adjustments… a lot of little tweaks here and there. Those nuances and matching them… the coaching is at such a high level. There are a number of guys who can coach anywhere.
CD: What do you want to see carried into the regular season after having one scrimmage and one exhibition to date?
DC: Offensive execution and particularly the sharing of the basketball. That’s been refreshing to see throughout the preseason. We’re actively trying to share the ball and get the best shot in each possession. They’re trusting and embracing the offense even more. With that being said, I have to point out that we need to get a hold of the turnover issue. We’ve got to tighten up on that.
CD: Let’s end on the Ryan Center atmosphere… you were in there last year hearing only sneakers squeak… what’s it going to be like?
DC: I’m so excited. Our whole team is excited and it’s like Christmas Eve here for our guys. The fan base brings energy and enthusiasm and we missed them. It’ll be great to have them back.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44