Men’s basketball focused on one day at a time, ready to build on last year’s successes

Andrew Wuebker, Sports Editor

One day at a time.

That’s been the recurring theme for the Roger Williams University men’s basketball team throughout much of their preseason as they’re just about ready to lace up for the 2017-18 campaign.

Nearly nine months removed from the completion of what arguably was the team’s best regular season performance in program history, earning 19 victories, the Hawks are starting over and seeking more, ready to combat the challenges of a new season and build on last year’s achievements.

“Well, I think it’s helpful when you have a core of players returning from that and that’s certainly helpful,” said Head Coach Michael Tully, who’s entering his 16th season as head coach of the Hawks. “They’ve sort of set the bar. And now to raise that bar, there’s a certain amount of expectations that just naturally come with it and the season didn’t end the way we wanted so there’s some motivation there. I thought they did a really good job this fall, prior to the 15th [of October] when they’re on their own. I think we have good captains, good senior leadership. I think the returners have done a great job doing the necessary things to continue in that direction.”

The Hawks returned nine players from last season’s roster with their core intact. Experienced veterans in seniors Nick Marini, Conor O’Brien and Jaylen Jennings, as well as junior Austin Coene, are among that core of key players for RWU. All of whom have also taken on the role of captains this season.

Other notable returning players include juniors Dalton Prendergast, Jake Heaton, and Ben Stone, as well as sophomores Ian Carmichael and Rich Pugliese. With the exception of Heaton who is projected to be the fifth starter alongside the four captains, the junior and sophomore class is poised to play important minutes off the bench.

While the team has the top half of their roster returning, the back half boasts seven new faces, welcoming aboard six bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshmen in JJ Pfohl, Chris Chappell, Jeff Stockmal, Andrew Hart, Doug Hostetler and Jonah St. Clair. The seventh guy is Bryan Donovan, a transfer from Providence College.

To some teams, that somewhat unexpected roster turnover could pose an issue, but Tully likes what he’s seen out of his new players thus far and how they’ve integrated into the team.

“It’s a talented first-year group for sure,” he said.

The general consensus around this roster is the Hawks got deeper, better, and more athletic, something they lacked in previous seasons. In practice, the freshmen in particular have shown their potential to contribute right away, offering not just skills like 3-point shooting and ball handling, but also intangibles like quickness, good size for their guards, and athleticism.

The Hawks’ starters in particular are also talented offensively. Marini, an All-CCC player last season, was very effective at the point, scoring 12.4 points a game while leading the team with 5.6 assists and a 55.9 percent field goal percentage. Coene, also an All-CCC player last season, led the team in scoring with nearly 21 a game on 50.6 percent shooting. O’Brien rounds out the top three scorers on the team chipping in 10.1 a game. Finally, Jennings and Heaton add some 3-point expertise, who made 54 3-pointers combined last year.

The Hawks no doubt have some skill on offense, but according to Tully and assistant coach Dan Weidmann, the defense early on will be a work in progress. In past seasons, the Hawks have moreso been known for being a strong defensive team. Anchored by graduated senior Josh Syska last season, RWU held their opponents to 72.5 points per game last season on a mere 40.6 percent shooting.

It will take some time for RWU to find their identity and adjust on the defensive end.

“I think they’re gonna have to find their identity a little bit,” Tully said. “I think every team’s different. I think what you will see with this team, I do think that a part of their identity will be that they play hard and they’ll be very unselfish. I think that’s what they’ll see for sure. Whether they lean to be a really strong defensive team or a more offensive oriented team or a pretty good balance, that’s what I don’t know yet. I know they’re gonna be unselfish. I know they’re gonna play hard. Those two things are certainly two things that we ask them the most.”

Weidmann believes the adjustment defensively will have to happen as a collective unit.

“It definitely happens as a collective unit,” Weidmann said. “I think it’s just focusing more on what you can do with the guys that you have and I think now we have more guys that can pressure the ball, react quicker, be in the right position quicker, and really just work on containing the ball because now you don’t have Syska behind you to bail you out like he used to do so many times.”

With so much to improve on before the season begins, the players and coaches are heavily focused on the aspect of getting better each and every day.

“We don’t talk much about season expectations,” Weidmann said. “We talk about daily expectations and we set daily goals of just trying to get better every single day. That’s our goal as a team and as a staff. I would say as a staff, what our goal is, ‘What’s the best thing we can do for our team today?’ We try to design our practice around that. We try to communicate to our guys about that. ‘What is the best thing we can do for our team today?’ And then for the guys it’s just the goal to get better everyday, to improve on the little things we’re working on everyday, form those habits, get them to think positively and act positively, teach ‘em how that all comes together on the court.”

Besides playing in a competitive Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) with teams such as Endicott College, Gordon College and defending CCC champion Nichols College near the top of the pack every year, the Hawks are more worried about the challenge of overcoming themselves. A quick playoff exit last season to Eastern Nazarene College is one example of that.

“When you come off a good season and you have a team that’s pretty good on paper, it’s easy to lose sight on working hard every single day, staying competitive every single day, and knowing that nothing’s for granted,” Weidmann said. “And I think for the most part these guys realize that because they had a good season and they lost in the first round of the playoffs. I think for sure our number one competition is ourselves and not ever getting comfortable.”

The Hawks certainly feel they look good on paper, but what happens in between the lines is what will really matter during the 25-game grind of a season. However, this Hawks team appears ready to embrace these challenges head on.

“As far as what I’m seeing in practice, everyone’s hungry,” Jennings said. “Whether it be just learning a drill, running to the next drill, talking more, everyone wants to get better. Even though we have new guys and it was just like, you know, it’s tough for them obviously. I can see that they want to grow. They want to improve and that’s just everyone across the board.”

“I think it’s a really good team that has a chance to do some special things,” Tully said.

The Hawks take on Coast Guard Academy in their season opener on Wednesday evening, Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m.