Alone at 5:15 a.m. before a practice last week, guard Jon Hicklin of Winston-Salem State was working on his free throws with the only sound being the bouncing of the ball at the Gaines Center.
Practice wasn’t starting for another 45 minutes, but Hicklin was making sure he doesn’t miss out on any preparation time for his first season with WSSU. That season will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday against UNC Pembroke and the Gaines Center will be alive with an expected sell out of 2,800 fans.
“I can’t wait,” said Hicklin, one of three Division I transfers that will likely be in the starting lineup for Coach Cleo Hill Jr.’s new-look team. “I only got to watch last year, but now I’ll be out there.”
Hicklin, a transfer from James Madison who has three years of eligibility, seems to be a perfect fit for the CIAA. At 6-foot-4 and a chiseled 205 pounds he will fit in nicely in the guard-oriented league that is the CIAA.
Hill said that Hicklin, who is from Charlotte, is so versatile he can play all five positions.
“I am looking forward to seeing how Jon does in this first game,” Hill said. “He sat out and watched our games last semester, and I know he wants to get out there at the Gaines Center in front of the crowd. But all the guys are looking forward to that opener.”
The Rams will be experienced for Hill’s second season, with more shooters who can space the floor. Senior guard Julius Barnes and Rob Colon have been through the wars of the CIAA and sophomore Xavier Fennell, a small forward, started 24 games last season. Throw in power forward Mason Harrell, a senior, and there’s plenty of talent that Hill can turn to.
What will ultimately determine if the Rams can improve on their 12 wins from last season, however, are the newcomers of Hicklin, point guard Justice Kithcart (Old Dominion), guard Jaylen Alston (Gardner-Webb) and forward Dontae Caldwell (Maryland-Eastern Shore). They will determine if the Rams are contenders in the CIAA.
The Rams don’t have any bruising inside players other than Melvin Huntley, Jr., a 6-6, 215-pound sophomore who started at center in WSSU’s exhibition loss to 11th-ranked North Carolina on Nov. 1.
With so many more shooters, spacing will be a key when the Rams are forced to slow it down into a halfcourt game. Competing in the CIAA is about guard play, something Hill is aware of.
“The league has older guys in it who maybe have been to Division I and have transferred or even guys who were out of school for a while, and then decided to go back to college,” Hill said. “That’s just the reality of this league.”
One player the Rams won’t have is 6-foot-10 center Brandon Franklin, who is from Fayetteville. Hill would not say why Franklin, a freshman who played at Northwood Temple Academy, isn’t on the roster, but Hill did say Franklin is in school at WSSU.
Harrell is the Rams’ tallest player at 6-foot-8, but he does most of his work around the free throw line. He was exceptional at hitting the mid-range jumper last season, but an ankle injury caused him to miss the last five games of the season.
“I’m just appreciating being back on the court,” Harrell said. “That injury really had me down last year. I feel like I’m back and ready to play my role for this team and get some wins.”
Harrell said he likes the makeup of the team. The 12 wins last season was a jump from five wins from the season before.
“The key for us is knowing our roles and rebounding,” Harrell said. “We are more guard oriented, so myself and a couple of others will have to rebound when we come into the game. We have to rebound as a collective group.”
Freshman Shamon Jackson, who is 6-foot-7, could also help on the inside, but against the Tar Heels, the Rams did a lot of penetrating before kicking it out to the open shooter.
“We will be a little smaller at the big positions, but we can create some mismatches,” said Colon, who has scored more than 1,000 points in his career and averaged 15.5 points per game last season.
When Hicklin transferred to WSSU for the spring semester last season, he was able to practice with the team but could not play in games. He had an advantage coming into this season because of his practice time as a redshirt last year.
“We just have to stay together and play hard,” said Hicklin, who like Alston is left-handed. “No matter if we are up 20 or down 20, we have to play together as one. If we can do that, we’ll have a successful season.”
In the Rams’ 96-61 loss to the Tar Heels, Coach Roy Williams praised the Rams after the game for doing a good job of penetrating and kicking the ball out to shooters.
“We play small and that drive and kick is key for us,” Hicklin said. “We did a good job against North Carolina, but we have to knock down those shots once we kick it out. We work on that in practice every day.”
Hill and his two assistant coaches (Lance Beckwith and Eric Wilson) have recruited to fit a particular style of play.
Hill, however, says to be successful it has to start on defense.
“We have to defend,” Hill said. “Whether you are big or small you have to defend the basketball. But I think as a smaller team you want to force bad shots and force turnovers. And you have to get bodies to box out.”