THE RAMS TAKE ON ST. JOSEPH’S WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 12TH AT 7PM ON YURVIEW, COX CHANNEL 4 IN RI
Through a dozen games, trend lines are pointing way up for Rhode Island redshirt junior Malik Martin.
The wing is blending lockdown defense and “grit intangibles” with improved decision making, shot taking, and shot making to become one of the Rams’ most valuable players. Averaging 7.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game on 47.1% shooting, Martin has rediscovered his identity and flourished in the role of glue guy. He’s a true binding agent for David Cox’s team offering a tough, do-what-it-takes persona each team he takes the court.
I caught up with Martin for an engaging, rapid-fire, conversation across a range of topics as the Rams ready to (fingers crossed) begin conference play Saturday at Davidson
Chris DiSano: Can you share your feelings on the season-to-date? How do you feel things are going despite the COVID pauses?
Malik Martin: I think the sky is the limit for this team. We have everything we need to be a championship team. We have leaders, we have great defenders, great scorers, great post play, and shooters. I’m pretty happy with where we stand at 9-3; we’ve put ourselves in good position going into conference play.
CDD: One thread you touched on focuses on the ingredients of this year’s team. What is the main difference you see between this year and last?
MM: We’ve become more versatile. Guys like Jeremy Sheppard, Ishmael El-Amin, and Ishmael Leggett that play on and off the ball, guys like me, Antwan Walker and Makhi Mitchell that can guard multiple positions and be effective on offense and defense – and that goes a long way in terms of mixing and matching lineups.
CD: Many of the guys you just mentioned, except for El-Amin and Makhi (who was hurt most of last season) played significantly for this team last year. El-Amin has been a terrific addition in terms of fit. What are your impressions of him and the impact he’s made over the first dozen games?
MM: He’s taught me a lot since he’s come in. When things go bad, or are about to go bad, he’s the first person to speak up. He’s a natural leader, he knows what to say and when to say it. He’s also an every-day guy: he works hard and he’s consistent with that level of effort. That has had a positive effect on his game and the team.
CD: You’ve touched on being in a good position going into conference play and we both hope Atlantic 10 games do begin as scheduled. Now that you’ve had an A10 season under your belt, what are your impressions of playing in the league and what learnings will you take from last year and apply this season?
MM: I learned that the A10 is a very good league and that any team in this league and any game in this league, 1 through 14, is going to be a battle. Every possession matters. It’s a tough league, with great players and you have to give your all and be ready to play every game. Mentally I think we all know that. As a team we’ll need to play better to win games in this league and I think we will get it together.
CD: Your comfort and your play this year has grown tremendously. How do you feel about where you’re at these days?
MM: I’ve changed a lot from last year mentally. I’ve always been a guy who will do whatever it takes to win but I feel last year there were times where I was selfish, and it affected how I played and impacted my minutes. This year, I know what I do well, and I try to excel there: play defense, take open shots when they’re there, attack the basket when I can, and do whatever it takes to win. I feel like I’ve been doing that at a high level and consistently.
CD: Greatly appreciate that answer — If we dig into it, was it about forcing things as a new guy last year and trying to prove yourself?
MM: It was a lot. Starting with the pressure of what my brother (Hassan) did here and the expectation being high – and then we began losing and that affected me. Then it was an adjustment from Conference USA to Atlantic 10. We also were playing more guys in the rotation and there were times where minutes weren’t there. It was a challenge and through it I grew a lot. This year, I’m more focused on doing what it takes to win. At the end of the day, if we win everybody will have success.
CD: One area that you’re taking to another level is your rebounding on both ends. You’ve always been a capable rebounder, but in your last 10 games you’ve grabbed six or more rebounds six times. Your offensive boards are up to nearly two a game this year. Your thoughts?
MM: Naturally a lot of perimeter guys don’t really like boxing out. I use that as an advantage. Coach Bozeman is very big on offensive rebounding and he has pushed me. Since he arrived, he sought me out as a naturally good rebounder and is challenging me to excel in that role.
CD: You’re an excellent defender. What do you enjoy more… the on-ball aspect of locking a guy down or the help aspect of stepping in a taking a charge?
MM: Whoa [laughs], that’s pretty equal. Watching a lot of film, figuring out guys tendencies. I’m more experienced now and I see and read things quicker – and it comes naturally to me.
CD: What is one area of your game that perhaps isn’t showing in the box score that you’re really pleased with this year?
MM: I think I’m more comfortable handling the ball. I can tell Coach Cox trusts me more and that helps my confidence. There’s still obviously more room for improvement, but in terms of handling the ball at times when needed, I’m proud of the improvement I’ve made there.
CD: Let’s go to the elephant in the room for a minute: these COVID pauses and postponed games. What’s the most difficult aspect?
MM: Rhythm. Staying in shape. Coach has been running us in practice because we haven’t played a lot lately. Game shape is much different from practice shape so we’re trying to simulate that. And then rhythm as a player, individually, in terms of “game shots” and the speed of the game. And as a team, a unit, the collective impact.
CD: Granted, you all didn’t lace them up against the toughest team in the country, but how important was the AIC game just to get back on the floor?
MM: Very important. We struggled in that game, but we needed that. We hadn’t played in 20 days, and we saw what we needed to work on. We’ve had some great practices since then and we’ll be ready for Davidson.
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