WSSU J.C. Smith Mens Basketball

Mason Harrell, who is among the top 10 in blocked shots in school history, has helped WSSU's defense play better this season.

The defense never rests at Winston-Salem State.

If there’s one glaring difference between Coach Cleo Hill Jr.’s first team at WSSU to this year’s second team it’s all about the defense. That trait might not sell tickets or be noticed by casual fans, but it's important.

The good news for the eighth-seeded Rams as they head to Indiana (Pa.) to take on the top-seeded Crimson Hawks is defense usually travels well. The Rams left by bus on Wednesday morning to travel the 10 hours or so to Indiana (Pa.).

“That’s what we are hoping for,” said Hill, who will take his third different program to the NCAA Tournament when the Rams play Indiana (Pa.) on Friday at 6 p.m. “We’ve been successful because it starts on defense, and I think that’s where our confidence comes from.”

That much is evident by the way Robert Colon, a senior who admits he favored the offensive part of the game early in his career, has taken on the challenge of being a better defensive player.

Hill also demands that his players make defense a priority because if they don’t, their playing time will be limited.

Senior Dontae Caldwell, who transferred before this season from Maryland-Eastern Shore, says he embraced the defensive plan early on.

“We don’t want to come out of the game,” Caldwell said. “If you don’t play defense, you come out. Everybody wants to play so that’s why our defense is so good.”

Caldwell, who is one of the Rams’ top shooters, said playing lock-down defense wasn’t exactly on his resume during his three seasons at Maryland-Eastern Shore.

“I don’t like defense, but I realized if I wanted to play more, I better play it,” Caldwell said.

The Rams gave up 73.6 points a game last season, but are nearly 10 points better in points allowed this season. They head to the NCAA Tournament’s Atlantic Regional giving up just 64.2 points per game, which was the best in the CIAA.

Many times this season Hill employs four guards and 6-foot-8 center Mason Harrell down low. Harrell, who is ranked in the top 10 in blocked shots in school history despite playing just two seasons, is quick on his feet and loves being the rim protector.

Harrell says the Rams play such good defense because they talk and help each other out on the court.

“It’s everybody talking while we are out there and communicating with what we want to do on defense,” Harrell said. “When we do that our defense is really good. No doubt about it, our defense is strong and they will try to run their stuff but we just have to play our game and we will be fine.”

Coach Joe Lombardi of the Crimson Hawks is familiar with Hill’s defensive-minded teams.

“I’ve known Cleo since he was at Shaw and we played them a few years ago and they get after it on defense,” said Lombardi, who is in his 14th season at Indiana (Pa.). “They beat us in 2012 in the regional so he coaches teams that are really good defensively and they’ve proven they are hard to score on.”

Last season opponents shot 43 percent against the Rams, but this season opponents are faring worse shooting 39 percent. The Rams rank fourth in Division II in field-goal percentage defense.

What makes the Rams’ defense so versatile is it can play a stingy 1-3-1 or switch to man-to-man. There’s not a lot of standard 2-3 zone that Hill employs because of how athletic the wings are starting with Xavier Fennell. Adding to that defense is the rebounding ability of Jaylen Alston, and the physical style that Jon Hicklin utilizes from his point-guard position.

Justice Kithcart, who is one of Hill’s first players off the bench, says defense is all about heart.

“Personally, I think everybody just locks in on defense and we take pride in that,” Kithcart said. “When we play man to man you don’t want your guy to score on you so there’s a lot of pride at work. That’s a big part of this team.”

One of Hill’s assistant coaches, Ricky Wilson, makes sure that the Rams are dialed in defensively, according to Kithcart.

“Coach Wilson’s big on defense and when you aren’t playing it right, you come out of the game,” Kithcart said.

The Rams’ defense will be challenged against the high-scoring Crimson Hawks, who average 84 points per game while giving up 65 points per game. The Crimson Hawks can hit the 3-pointer or can get the ball inside.

Hill said there’s no a lot of philosophy about the brand of defense the Rams play. He did say communication is the biggest concept he believes in.

“I think individually everybody wants to defend,” Hill said, “and collectively we have a good feel as a group how we stay on a string and it’s really a help the helper sort of thing.”

jdell@wsjournal.com

(336) 727-4081

@johndellWSJ

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