Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
Over the summer, coach Mike Rhoades put his team on the track to get tougher and stronger for the season. Not only did the tough workouts make his players stronger, but it was the start of building a culture.
“When the lights aren’t on and it’s in the summer and there’s nobody around but the players and they’re doing all the work,” Rhoades said, “we built a culture based on work and making sure we’re taking care of each other.”
Culture was one of the biggest changes from last season, as the team became a “family.”
“The biggest thing was that our guys really gave in to the program,” Rhoades said. “I’m not saying it in a negative way, but it was, ‘Get out of your own way, drop your personal agendas, be coachable, be about the team.’ And what that turned into was the guys did a great job at celebrating their teammates’ successes more than their own.”
The Rams used the “army” approach this season, playing an average of 12 players in each contest. No player averaged more than 28 minutes: junior guard De’Riante Jenkins played an average of 28 minutes, followed by redshirt-junior forward Issac Vann at 27.5 minutes.
The deep bench allowed the Rams to cycle players in and out, keeping fresh legs on the court. This proved helpful when redshirt-junior guard Marcus Evans went down with an injury in the Atlantic 10 quaterfinal loss to Rhode Island March 15.
Evans returned for the First Round of the NCAA Tournament against UCF, and his teammates celebrated his return the day before the game.
“When we knew he would be able to play, you could see the guys really excited for him,” Rhoades said after the loss to UCF. “And that says something about what everybody feels about [Evans] and each other.”
In the loss to UCF, junior guard Malik Crowfield stepped up in the second half to lead a late surge that closed the gap to 7. Crowfield — who played 13 minutes — led the Rams with 11 points, including 3-for-4 from three.
“Seeing everyone, how the work pays off at their given time, you never know,” Jenkins said. “It was days when some dudes were down, and they just kept working. And eventually they had that game where all their hard work paid off, and everyone was excited for them. We all just want to see each other succeed, no matter who it was.”
Each player on the Rams’ bench has stepped up this season, like Crowfield did against UCF.
Freshman forward Vince Williams played in all 33 games this season, averaging 4.9 points a game off the bench. The Toledo, Ohio, native also made plays this season that don’t show up in the box score — he has a knack for drawing charges while on defense.
Junior guard Mike’l Simms brought perimeter shooting off the bench, attempting 106 threes this season for the Rams. The Richmond native also played in all 33 games, including one start.
Next season, the Rams will return all five starters and only lose two players to graduation: redshirt-senior forward Michael Gilmore and senior guard Xavier Jackson.
The Black and Gold will have a heavy veteran presence in the locker room and on the court next year with five seniors on the roster: Evans, Jenkins, Vann, Crowfield and Simms.