Rhode Island (19-6, 11-2) continued its strong season over the weekend with a pull-away victory against Saint Joseph’s. Now the Rams are in the midst of their first bye week of the Atlantic 10 season. David Cox’s team gets some much needed rest via sitting out the customary Tuesday and Wednesday games as it prepares for a road contest at Davidson this weekend.
I caught up with assistant coach Kevin Sutton earlier this week for a rapid-fire interview during this brief pause in the season. Here’s what the affable Sutton has to say:
Chris DiSano: You’re coming off a 1-1 week last week, where you beat Saint Joe’s over the weekend and lost at No. 5 Dayton in what was a difficult and emotionally-charged environment to play. What did the team learn from that Dayton loss and in the way that game transpired?
Kevin Sutton: Number one, that we can play with them. After getting down 17-0, the rest of the game was basically even. So, we learned that we can play with them even though they’re very talented. And playing at their home is a very difficult place to play. We were fortunate enough to win there last year and we knew they’d be highly motivated to play us again at their home this year. So we’re more than capable of playing them, playing them well, and on any given night I think we can beat them.
CD: Fast forward to this week in looking around the Atlantic 10. You all are playing meaningful games in mid-February… You look at the NET rankings, profiles, and then you see a top-level Atlantic 10 peer in VCU stumble against George Mason a few days ago. What did the players – self-motivated as they are – take from that in terms of staying on the task at hand?
KS: First and foremost, Coach Cox does a tremendous job of keeping things in the proper perspective. He’s always challenging our guys to understand, live in the moment, and take each opponent as the biggest game of the year. So Coach Cox does a great job of making sure our guys are fully aware of what’s going on around the league and what’s going on nationally. So we try to educate them to learn that you can’t overlook an opponent. You referenced it earlier, that we have meaningful games the rest of the way. Every game is important and we have to take them as such. But we have to take them one at a time.
CD: Great segue… there are five regular season games left. What does this team need to continue to do to play at the level the coaches want and need the unit to play at — could be tactically, mentally, etc.?
KS: Coach Cox and our entire staff make sure that our guys understand that we have to get better every day. We want to continue to improve in all aspects of our game, and then we’ll focus on beating our opponent. It sounds like a cliche, but yet it is truly what we’ve said all year long. If we take care of ourselves, offensively, defensively, our health, and our mental, emotional and physical preparation for the games, then when we prepare schematically for the next opponent we’ll position ourselves well. We’re a very good defensive team, a team that plays team basketball, and we need to continue to do that at a high level.
CD: What’s one area of team growth that you’ve been most pleased with from November to February?
KS: I’ve always thought that we can be an elite level defensive team, and that has held true. Our shooting has improved, we take very good shots and subsequently our percentages have improved year over year. And we’re an unselfish team. We do share the ball and when we do share it and spray it, as we say, I think we’re really difficult to defend.
CD: Cyril Langevine and Jeff Dowtin, the senior leaders. These guys have five regular season games left. For each of them, what is one underappreciated area of their respective games that you’ve observed and, secondly, what’s an area where you feel the staff has helped them grow in the last couple of years?
KS: For Cyril, an underappreciated area is that he really, really cares about his teammates and he is vocal — especially on the defensive end. When he is vocal from defensive perspective because he’s involved with so many ball screens and he calls the defensive coverages — it’s almost like having a middle linebacker or free safety. So his value to the untrained eye isn’t fully understood. But to us who have trained eyes in the game of basketball it’s something that is very valuable.
Cyril and I have a very good connection and relationship. He’s grown in understanding his value, which doesn’t always have to be rebounds or points. In order to continue to grow his game, he needs to understand the nuances of – at the next level – where will his value be? It will be in his ability to defend, rebound, and use that incredible motor.
For Jeff, his consistency is often overlooked. He’s been so rock solid for four years, on and off the court — his consistency has been impeccable. Often times when you are that way it can be taken for granted. That’s an undervalued aspect of his game that really won’t be appreciated until he graduates.
First and foremost, your question couldn’t be more appropriate. I sent him a text today that I have been coaching for 35 years and have thoroughly enjoyed – and am enjoying – coaching him. We’ve connected on an intellectual level, our passion for the game, over basketball… he is a savant in terms of understanding time, score, and history of the game. And we have connected on how to make him a better player. He’s given me the opportunity to pour into him my knowledge of what I feel can make him a better player, and with my track record, he has trusted me. He’s allowed me to coach him and motivate him and help him reach his goals.
CD: You’ve got Davidson coming up with a week off to prepare. I’m not sure if you have the scout, but what’s your take on these guys, how they’re playing lately, and the challenges they present?
[Editor’s Note: This question and answer took place before Davidson squandered a 19-point lead and lost to Saint Joseph’s on Tuesday night.]
KS: They are playing well. They’re well coached, with Bob McKillop a future Hall of Famer. They’re an experienced team and have many international players who have played at a high level back in their countries. This gives them a level of experience beyond their years. If you watch Jon Axel Gudmundsson play you can see that he’s played with older players forever and has a high basketball IQ. They flow in and out of offense extremely fast, they’re moving the ball, making shots and the kid Hyunjung Lee is playing phenomenal right now.
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