Jonathan Hicklin, dripping with sweat after a three-hour basketball practice at Winston-Salem State, wasn’t about to complain.
Instead, Hicklin, a 6-foot-4 point guard who is a transfer from James Madison, was relishing his opportunity as the Rams had their first official practice of the season at the Gaines Center on Tuesday afternoon.
In the old days, the magical date of Oct. 15 was when practice could officially start, but since the NCAA allows workouts and practices when school starts in August, the Rams and Coach Cleo Hill Jr., have had several workouts before Tuesday.
“It was tough, but I loved it,” Hicklin said about the practice.
The reason he loved it was this season he can play in actual games. When he transferred for the second semester last season he could practice with the Rams but couldn’t play in games.
“This is a lot different, and I’m excited and just ready to help us win some games,” said Hicklin, who is from Charlotte and is ready for his sophomore sea-son. “Last year it was tough just practicing and then watching games. Now I feel like I’m really part of the team.”
That team that Hill and his two assistants (Ricky Wilson and Lance Beckwith) have put together will be guard oriented. Hinklin, who can also play the wing, is versatile enough to move around and play different positions when senior Julius Barnes is at the point.
Robert Colon, another senior, is a three-year starter and has scored more than 1,000 points in his career. The veteran leadership of Colon, who is a team captain along with sophomore Xavier Fennell, and Barnes will help because not all of the pressure will be on Hinklin to win games by himself.
“It’s great that we have those guys like Rob and Jules because they’ve seen it all,” said Hinklin, who didn’t get much playing time at JMU which is why he decided to transfer after his freshman season. “I do like to play point guard because I like to get everybody involved. With me on the point I think it would be an advantage with my height in the CIAA.”
Hill has a lot of new parts to work with starting with Hinklin, who is left-handed, and going to another left-handed player, Jaylen Alston, a high-scoring wing who is a transfer from Gardner-Webb. Alston, a former star at Eastern Guilford, is also 6-foot-4 and can play two positions.
Colon had no trouble giving a scouting report on Alston and Hinklin.
“Jon plays point guard and he gets everybody involved and Jaylen brings so much energy and he can drive and dunk on anybody," Colon said, "and when he does that the Gaines Center is going to go crazy."
Fans can get a glimpse of the men's and women's team on Thursday at the Gaines Center at 7 p.m. with Ram Madness.
The Rams, who were 12-15 last season, also welcome back Mason Harrell, a 6-foot-8 center, who missed the final five games last season with a foot injury after driving into the stands for a loose ball. He’s 100 percent and his ability to run the floor and knock down the 15-foot jumper will be needed.
With Colon, Barnes and Fennell, another 6-foot-4 player, Hill has three starters back from last season. Fennell had a solid freshman season and is still probably the team’s best athlete.
Hill says that the early practices will be spent trying to get the right mix on the court.
“We are building out our defenses and offenses in how we want to play,” Hill said. “There’ll be an emphasis on transition defense because that’s so huge to be able to do that well in our league.”
Among the losses to graduation was center Willie Crandell, an All-CIAA player who scored more than 1,000 points in his career. He was a four-year starter for a reason.
“There’s no way to replace that what Will Crandell did because he was a 6-2 center with quickness,” Hill said. “His energy and knowing the league was big and he was physical around the basket but we don’t have that this year.”
Another key newcomer redshirt senior Dontae Caldwell, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Maryland Eastern-Shore. Caldwell played for Bobby Collins, a former WSSU coach who is now an assistant at S.C. State. Caldwell can shoot the ball and demonstrated that during practice on Tuesday.
“He’s one of Bobby’s former players so he’s played in the MEAC and will give us a little more experience,” Hill said.
With so many new faces the Rams were picked eighth overall in the CIAA preseason coaches poll. Hill was asked who will make the biggest impact among the new players.
“That’s a tough question,” Hill said. “I’m excited for folks to see all the newcomers. And I’m excited for the seniors like Rob and Julius who have both played in the league the previous three season so they know what it’s all about. I’m really looking forward to them leading us and having outstanding senior seasons.”
Hill said Colon, who was the team’s second leading scorer last season at 15 points a game, and Barnes will be counted on for their leadership.
“I don’t know if their roles will be the same,” Hill said about Barnes and Colon. “We really don’t have our starting lineup worked out yet so it could change but they both have had good preseasons.”
Before their regular-season begins the Rams will open at North Carolina on Nov. 1 in an exhibition game at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
“Yeah, it’s cupcake city,” Hill said with a laugh.
WSSU will get $25,000 and the chance to play against one of the best Division I programs in the history of college basketball.
“There are some things we want to work toward for our regular-season but there are obvious challenges with playing the Tar Heels,” Hill said. “They have Cole Anthony (a talented freshman point guard) and they have tradition and we have tradition at our Division II level, so we just want to throw our hat into the ring and try and play well.”