There are two words that best sum up the Rhode Island Rams off-season.
Uncertainty and change.
When the Rhode Island Rams take the court on Wednesday night, it’ll be the first time since March 7; when a narrow 64-63 victory at UMass ended up as an unexpected 2019-20 season finale.
A revamped roster, an ever-changing schedule, and preparing for a season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic have all presented major challenges since that game in Amherst, Mass. Despite the circumstances, the 2020-21 season is set to get underway.
262 days have elapsed since that last game but the season is set to begin on Wednesday, with four games in five days at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. A last-minute cancellation from No. 2 Baylor landed URI in the 2K Empire Classic, with a golden opportunity for resume-building wins. The Rams will open up with No. 18 Arizona State at 7 p.m. on Nov. 25 on ESPN, then will face either No. 3 Villanova or Boston College on Thanksgiving Day. For more information check out Nick Simeone’s Empire Classic preview.
The schedule has shrunk to 25-regular season games due to the delayed start and travel complications. URI had several games canceled including its annual tilt with rival Providence.
Four of the seven non-conference matchups will be played at the Connecticut casino. The Rams will then meet a pair of power conference foes in Seton Hall at the Ryan Center on Dec 2. and at Boston College on Dec. 4. A trip to Western Kentucky on Dec. 13 rounds out the non-conference schedule before an 18-game Atlantic-10 conference slate begins with a visit from Davidson on Dec. 18.
New Identity for Rams
URI was picked to finish sixth in the A-10 preseason poll, which is serving as motivation for the team to reach their ultimate goal of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.
“We are now going to be hunters as opposed to perhaps the hunted… We’ve embraced that role.” Head Coach David Cox said at A-10 media day.
Richmond and Saint Louis took the top two spots in the preseason poll. Rhode Island will face both of those teams on the road. Reigning regular season champion Dayton was slated third in the poll. St. Bonaventure and Duquesne were picked higher than the Rams to round out the top five.
The URI roster returns just three players from the 2019-20 team that finished 21-9 (13-5 A-10.) They were in the mix for an at-large bid before the NCAA Tournament was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ample roster turnover ensued as the Rams lost longtime starters Cyril Langevine and Jeff Dowtin to graduation. Key contributors Tyrese Martin, Jacob Toppin, and Mekhi Long also left the program via the transfer portal.
Russell Returns to Lead Rams
Despite coaching changes, ample roster turnover, and a since retracted decision to enter the NBA Draft throughout his decorated career; Fatts Russell chose to return to Kingston, R.I. for his senior year.
“Going into our fourth-year together, I feel like we’re a married couple,” Cox said with a chuckle… “He’s on the cusp of doing something really special at this university.”
Russell has a chance to cement himself as a URI all-time great this season. After being named First-Team All-Atlantic-10 in 2019-20, he’ll look to become the first Ram to earn consecutive First-Team honors since Will Daniels in 2006-07 and 2007-08.
The Philadelphia native has already eclipsed the 1,000-point mark with 1,255 in his career. He ranks sixth in in program-history in steals with 169 and is the undoubted the leader of this new-look roster.
Senior Getting National Attention
The senior has garnered national attention after averaging 18.8 PPG in his junior campaign as one of 50 players named to the Naismith Player of the Year Award watch list. He was also placed on the Bob Cousy Award watch list, given to the nation’s best point guard.
“It’s a huge honor but winning is always at the top of my list… That’s my main goal. All the other stuff will come, everybody will get awards after we win.” Russell said of all of the preseason recognition.
Returners Expected to Make Big Leaps
In addition to star Fatts Russell, there are players who were in last year’s locker room expected to be key contributors this year. The most unknown and anticipated among that group is guard, Jeremy Sheppard.
The senior hasn’t played in a Division 1 game in nearly three years when he averaged 9.2 points per game as a freshman at East Carolina. He then spent one season at Central College of Florida where he averaged 17.4 points per game. After sitting out in 2019-20, he’s expected to play a significant role.
“It’s crazy to look back and see a twin, he plays how I play… He compliments me very well.” Russell said of his new backcourt partner.
Sheppard is a quick guard with impressive shooting ability, he shoots very well from beyond-the-arc at 44.3 percent from long range in his lone season at junior college. An area the Rams certainly want to improve after ranking third-to-last in the conference in three-point shooting at a bleak 31.6 percent in 2019-20. He’s been practicing with the team since he arrived on-campus but is itching for real-game action.
D.J. Johnson is another junior college transfer expected to see some playing time in 2020-21. The former Williston State forward spent last season looking on due to transfer rules. The redshirt junior is versatile on both ends of the floor, he averaged 13.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game at Williston State. Johnson adds significant length and athleticism to the Rams’ rotation.
Jermaine Harris and Antwan Walker are paramount to replacing the interior presence of Langevine this upcoming season. The two juniors both averaged around five points and three rebounds per contest last year. Obviously, you can’t just replace a player of Langevine’s talent but these two will be tasked with filling the void.
“I expect them to take major steps from their sophomore years… In the past four months, both of those young men have taken huge leaps. Whether they can give us the production of Cyril who was an absolute animal, time will tell.” Cox said of his two returning forwards.
Cox and his staff worked furiously to replace sixty percent of its scoring from last season. They welcome 10 newcomers comprised of five transfers (four of whom are immediately eligible), three freshmen and two walk-ons.
“The biggest challenge is going to be meshing this talent… We’ve got guys who have played at high levels” Cox said of his transfer-heavy new roster.
The class of transfers includes big men Makhel and Makhi Mitchell from Maryland. The sophomore twins were both highly-touted out of Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington D.C.
Makhi Mitchell started five games and appeared in 12 for the Terrapins before entering the transfer portal midway last season. He was rated the No. 64 player in the country out of high school according to the ESPN Top 100 in 2019.
Makhel Mitchell is the tallest player on the Rams roster listed at 6-foot-10. He appeared in 10 games during his short-time in College Park, Md. Like his identical twin, he was rated a four-star recruit by ESPN, Rivals, and 247 Sports.
This duo will join returners, Walker and Harris, in attempting to replace the frontcourt production of graduated Cyril Langevine, who averaged a double-double 10.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game last season.
Former Syracuse guard Jalen Carey comes over from upstate New York and adds significant guard depth. Carey played two seasons with the Orange, he appeared in 26 games as a freshman averaging 3.5 PPG. As a sophomore, the Harlem, N.Y. native appeared in just two games before a thumb injury sidelined him for the rest of the year.
Malik Martin is another name Rams fans should get to know, and a familiar one at that. The Charlotte transfer is the brother of former URI great Hassan Martin, who helped lead the Rams to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years in 2016-17. Malik Martin will now look to build his legacy wearing Keaney blue. The junior was named to C-USA’s All-Defensive Team who can defend positions 1-4 on the court.
The final transfer is former Towson guard Allen Bertrand, the only of the five transfers that isn’t immediately eligible, he will sit out for 2020-21.
New Kids on the Block
Three scholarship freshmen were added Ishmael Leggett, Tres Berry, and Ileri Ayo-Fileye. Leggett is the headliner of the trio, the 6-foot-2 guard is a volume scorer. He’s a three-star recruit out of at St. John’s College, the high school alma mater of Cox and former guard Jeff Dowtin. Coach Cox said to expect him to be “in the mix” in terms of playing time. Ayo-Fileye isn’t expected to play this year, he plans to redshirt and will make his debut next season. According to Cox whether Berry will redshirt or not is still up in the air.
Time for the Unknown
This will be a college basketball unlike ever before. Truthfully, no one really knows what to expect. Coaching staff’s will now do more than make in-game decisions and develop players in practice. They’ll be tasked with keeping everyone healthy and safe in order to get the opportunity to compete. However, with all the uncertainty and change one thing has remained constant. The Rhode Island Rams are excited and ready to play basketball.