As we welcomed the official start of summer Saturday (made my first trip to the beach over the weekend) it seems an opportune time to check in on the URI Men’s basketball program. Really, what time isn’t a good time to talk Rams basketball? (Confession: I just needed a functional lede.)
So I chased-down current assistant coach Kevin Sutton for a discussion about the Rams during this unique off season. Entering his third season in Kingston, Sutton is a key member of David Cox’s staff and a trusted voice.
Chris DiSano: With the obvious COVID environment, how have Coach Cox, you, the rest of the coaching staff been managing the program through these past three months? What’s been your approach and perhaps what are some of the tactics you’ve deployed to keep the team connected between March 14th and late May (prior to their arrival back on campus recently)?
Kevin Sutton: What’s really interesting is I went back into the office the other day and looked at my calendar and it still said March. That, first and foremost, put everything in perspective for me. In terms of leadership, Coach Cox has proven time and time again that he is the leader of our program. During this pandemic you see the real head coaches step to the front and become leaders in more than just title. Coach Cox did that from the very beginning.
I remember vividly back at the Atlantic 10 Tournament, he really didn’t feel things were right. And as soon as the Tournament was canceled, we had a 1:00pm meeting and were out of New York by 1:30pm, a place we now know was the epicenter at the time. He got us back home and has led us from that point until now. Our coaching staff has been tremendous and followed his leadership. Coach Cox has been in constant contact with Thorr Bjorn, Director of Athletics, whose been another great leader and ally throughout this whole pandemic situation.
And Coach Cox continues to lead and challenge us as a coaching staff to stay in contact with our players through Zoom, messaging, regular calls and more. He’s stayed in touch with the parents as well, having them on Zoom calls. We’ve been creative with our Zooms, where we’ve brought people in to speak to our teams: Troy Weaver, for example, who at the time was the assistant general manager for the Oklahoma City Thunder and now is the Detroit Pistons GM; we’ve had Cuttino Mobley talk to our team, Quinn Cook who played for Coach Cox (DC Premier AAU) and me (USA Basketball U16-17) who also spoke to us. It’s been tremendous, we’ve remained connected and worked our tails off in the recruiting areas as well.
CD: You mentioned Troy Weaver, who was just introduced as Pistons GM this week. What is one takeaway that he shared which you found compelling?
KS: There were a lot of takeaways. The one thing I continue to quote Troy on is when he says, “You have to build habits — and the habits you eventually build will build you.” So if you choose to build positive habits they’ll help you move in a positive direction, whereas if you build bad ones they’ll eventually be your downfall. So stacking good habits.
CD: That’s a great message and a good segue. During an off season like this – or generally – how do you stay sharp personally? Any good books you’ve read? Virtual clinics that you’re offering or attending? You’re such a hands-on, mentoring type — how have you stayed active?
KS: You know what, it’s been a tremendous growth period for me. I’ve been strategic and selfish in my development: professional, personal, spiritual and the development of my family as well. I try to challenge myself to grow in all of those areas. I am an avid reader. I’ve probably read a book every two weeks. I’ve been a presenter on several Zooms and virtual clinics, continuing to sharpen my proverbial sword as a coach. Like you said, I value my role as a mentor and have run Zoom meetings; that’s gone really well. I just try to stay in my growth mindset.
CD: Two full seasons now that you’ve been here and a right hand man to Coach Cox. The team’s record, 39-24, during that time — including another 13+ win A-10 conference season. What are you most proud of over these first couple of years and what did you/the team learn during both the rough patches and winning streaks of last year?
KS: I am most proud of helping Coach Cox build a program that he always envisioned. Over the two years we’ve been winning on the court but continue to win off the court as well, with our players getting athletic and academic honors — both at a conference and institution level. And I am extremely proud of what the future of the program looks like. To be involved in the recruiting and formation of the program as we move forward. Like we said before, the coronavirus hit and shortened our season — but I really believe we were a postseason team, whether NCAA Tournament or NIT, I believe in my heart of hearts we would’ve been in postseason play.
CD: You just touched upon recruiting… we all know that recruiting continues to evolve into a more volatile and different ballgame. After some departures – and Coach Cox, Thorr, and I talked about this a few weeks ago – you all bounced back strong in recruiting. What are your thoughts about the way you bounced back?
KS: First and foremost, roster management is something you always have to deal with… and with the transfer portal being what it is and the NCAA allowing it to be what it has become, it is always evolving. Recruiting basically has its own season now. And you have to do it all the time… if you don’t you get left behind. We had a few guys leave and they were hits. But that happens in this business. The one thing I hope our fans understand is that recruiting is ongoing and there are going to be kids that transfer for various reasons. It’s not traditional anymore where guys just transfer because they’re not playing. There are various reasons.
I’m proud of our staff; how we dug our feet in, led by Coach Cox, and we went out and identified student-athletes who could be successful here at the University of Rhode Island — and they’re very, very talented. So I’m pleased we’ve been able to assimilate and accumulate the roster that we’ve assembled. Led by Coach Cox, everyone had a hand either in recruiting or program management during the time: John and Austin Carroll, T.J. Buchanan, Ryan McCloskey, Jerrell Coleman, Sydney Armand. We rolled up our sleeves and took advantage of the situation that was presented to us.
CD: Let’s talk Fatts Russell for a minute. How do you feel about having the opportunity to coach him during his senior season… He’s a kid who has meant so much to this program, both on and off the floor, during his time here.
KS: I’m extremely happy that Fatts is going to return to the University of Rhode Island. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to coach him for two years and now am excited to be a part of his senior year. Last year was a tremendous year for him. You and I had this conversation last year — I wish I could say I was the reason the transformation took place, but I wasn’t. Neither can any of our coaches. The credit goes to him. He allowed himself to grow… he gave his game over to Coach Cox and he sacrificed for his team. Subsequently, we had a great season and he individually had a great season, making First Team All-Conference and All-Defensive Team. At one point, it was a two horse race with Dayton’s Obi Toppin for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. I’m extremely excited to coach him his senior season.
CD: We’ll wrap it with this… Guys got to campus a week or so ago. We’ll talk many more times before the season begins so I don’t want to unnecessarily fast forward. But what’s been going on in terms of getting guys back in a rhythm and routine and what’s on the immediate horizon?
KS: Well, we wanted to get them back as soon as we were able to in the current public health climate. The administration really worked with us and Coach Cox has been tremendous. We’ve been able to solidify ourselves academically to stay on top of that — even with distance learning previously. When you have the players on campus in one area you can better monitor and solidify the academics. We’re also getting mentally and emotionally into a great space. Summer Session 2 started today and we’ll get through that. Then in July when we’re allowed to work out with the team by NCAA rules, we’ll get on the floor, work out with our guys — and we’re really excited about the talent level of our team and the potential of how good we can be.