Coaches always want more out of their teams, and Cleo Hill Jr., who just completed his first season as head coach of Winston-Salem State, is no different.
“I was expecting 15 wins,” Hill said. “And I was hoping to get to a Friday night game (in the CIAA Tournament). But overall, there were ups and downs that we endured this first season.”
Hill sat in his office at the Gaines Center last week and went into great detail about his first season at WSSU. The Rams, who went 5-22 in the 2017-18 season, finished the 2018-19 season 12-15 overall and 7-11 in CIAA play this season as Hill put his stamp on the program as best that he could.
There was a definite improvement, and Hill said the talk around the program was all positive despite a first-round loss to Elizabeth City State in the CIAA Tournament in Charlotte.
“I feel like there is a buzz,” Hill said. “I always knew that Winston-Salem State fans always supported the program. I had always admired them from afar, and my parents went here and Earl ("The Pearl" Monroe) was my first hero, so you always see the red come in.”
Hill, whose late father, Cleo Hill Sr., is a WSSU basketball legend who played during the late 1950s and early 1960s, has embraced the WSSU tradition. He knows the pressure will be on next season as he continues to build the program with roughly seven scholarships at his disposal. By comparison, Shaw, which won the Southern Division, has close to 10 scholarships, according to Hill.
Hill’s phone has been ringing a lot since the season ended as assistants Ricky Wilson and Lance Beckwith are working toward recruiting quality players for next season.
Of the top nine players on this year’s roster, six were seniors who have exhausted their eligibility. Starters Willie Crandell and Jamel McAllister will be the two biggest losses and key players James Rucker, Jalyn McKoy, Derek Brewer and Adrew Lopez also played their final seasons.
Core players such as Robert Colon, Julius Barnes, Mason Harrell and Xavier Fennell, are expected to return. Colon was second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game. He, Barnes and Harrell will be seniors next season.
“We need to keep upgrading and get bigger in terms of height,” Hill said. “Just seeing the league and how it’s changed, we have to upgrade in everything.”
The biggest loss will be Crandell, who led the Rams in scoring at 15.6 points a game and in rebounding at 6.4 per game. The 6-foot-5 senior was a bit undersized to be playing in the post, but he was an All-CIAA performer for three seasons. He finished his career with more than 1,400 career points and 600 rebounds.
The Rams will welcome 6-foot-4 point guard Jonathan Hicklin, a transfer from James Madison who is from Charlotte. He enrolled at WSSU for the spring semester and was allowed to practice. By all accounts, will be a game changer for the Rams next season.
Hill smiled when asked how good Hicklin, a left-hander with three years of eligibility remaining, can be.
“The biggest thing I like about him was he really made guys better in practice,” Hill said. “Some players pass the ball hard, but Jon knows when to drop off a light, close pass or a bounce pass. I hadn’t seen that kind of touch with his passing since Tony Smith.”
Hill coached Smith, a 6-foot-5 point guard, while at Shaw a few years back. Hill also said Hicklin has flashes of Ronald “Flip” Murray, another former Shaw star who went on to play in the NBA.
Hicklin attended Northside Christian Academy in Charlotte. In his senior season, he averaged 16.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.8 steals per game.
“I love where we are going in recruiting,” Hill said.
The Rams have also signed Brandon Franklin, a 6-8 post player from Fayetteville who is a senior at Northwood Temple Academy. Franklin averaged 4.6 points and 3.7 rebounds this past season, but Hill loves Franklin’s potential.
“He is a guy who signed early with us and we like what he can bring to our program,” Hill said.
The Rams also have a commitment from Jaylen Alston, a former star at Eastern Guilford High School who will transfer from Gardner-Webb. Hill is not permitted to talk about Alston, who averaged 25 points, 12 rebounds and 3.4 steals in his senior season at Eastern Guilford, until he enrolls at WSSU.
Alston, a 6-4 wing, told the Greensboro News & Record he will finish his spring semester at Gardner-Webb and enroll at WSSU this fall. He will have three years of eligibility remaining.
Hill said this season had its highlights, such as the close win against Johnson C. Smith at the Gaines Center on Senior Night, as well as the three-game winning streak to end the regular season.
In that win over the Golden Bulls, the atmosphere was as good as it’s been in a long time.
“For me, it’s unbelievable as a coach,” Hill said about playing at the Gaines Center against their biggest rival. “I just don’t know how my players responded to it. Sometimes I think it’s too much, so we have to learn to maybe handle it a little better next season. But it’s a good problem to have.”
Hill, who was out of coaching for three seasons since last coaching at Shaw, said the CIAA is as competitive as ever.
“I think my assistant coaches were so good it made me a better coach,” Hill said. “Going back to basics was what we did, and I was out for three years, so there were some things I picked up. With what we had, it was more about back to basics, but next year I do think we can be a little more creative.”
Hill said matching wits with coaches around the league such as Steve Joyner Sr. (Johnson C. Smith), Joel Hopkins (Shaw), Shawn Walker (Elizabeth City State) and Darrell Brooks (Bowie State) was exciting.
“For me, the fun was getting back into coaching and going against the real good coaches in the league,” Hill said. “So just matching wits with my staff versus another staff is always fun and you get to do that nightly in this league.”
Hill said there’s no question that for the Rams to be better, they’ll have to play smarter and be tougher.
“We are recruiting less off highlights, and we just have to get out and see guys play and see them play multiple times,” he said. “We need to see recruits in blowouts or in tight games and see how guys interact with their coaches and teammates.I think we can definitely take that next step.”