The good news for Winston-Salem State’s men’s basketball team is it got a few days off because of the snow that hit earlier this week. The bad news, as far as Coach Cleo Hill Jr. is concerned, is he doesn’t know what kind of shape his team will be in this weekend.
“You do fall out of shape rather quickly and we’ve hardly practiced,” Hill said on Wednesday morning.
The Rams (5-3) got back on the practice court Wednesday afternoon in preparation for their CIAA opener at 4 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln (Pa.). WSSU was scheduled to play its opener on Thursday night at Virginia Union, but that game was postponed.
“We’ll get a couple of practices in before we head to Lincoln, but we are also in the middle of exams,” Hill said. “So we’ll see what we have once we hit the court on Saturday.”
Hill has been pleased with his team’s ability to close out games, especially since the Rams are riding a three-game win streak. This is a significant development for the veteran Rams, since they won just five games last season.
Hill, who is in his first season as head coach at WSSU, says having six seniors who have all been through the CIAA before should help this weekend.
After playing Lincoln (Pa.) on Saturday, the Rams play Bowie State on Sunday at 4 p.m.
“I really do like the back-to-back games because it prepares you for the (CIAA) tournament,” Hill said.
With exams being pushed to later in the week and a lack of practice time, Hill and his staff will ease the Rams back into a normal routine. He has film sessions planned along with practice time.
Hill said he and his assistant coaches have pushed and prodded a lot in practices, but there’s been no complaining.
“I think that goes hand in hand with having a veteran group and they all know they were part of a team that won only five games a year ago,” Hill said. “The motivation factor is there, so that’s been good.”
The Rams have had anywhere from eight to 11 players in the rotation this season. Eight of those core players are averaging double figures in minutes played, but Hill likely will add another shooter to the mix.
Freshman Corey Rutherford, a graduate of Winston-Salem Prep, was given late clearance to play this season and has been eligible for the last two games. Rutherford, who is 6-foot-4, is one of the best shooters on the team, according to Hill.
“He can really shoot it,” Hill said of Rutherford, who is averaging just eight minutes in his two games of action.
With back-to-back games and little practice time this week, Hill says using his depth will be important this weekend.
“There’s been a new tone and the guys are accountable,” Hill said about what he’s liked so far this season. “They’ve had their struggles along the way, but with a new coach and a new staff we’ve talked a lot about holding each other accountable.”
Junior Robert Colon, who two years ago was the CIAA freshman of the year, leads the Rams in scoring at 17.6 points a game. He’s shooting 41 percent from the field, slightly up from his 38-percent shooting last season.
Senior Willie Crandell (15.9 ppg) and Jamel McAllister (10.3 ppg) have been consistent. Both are four-year starters who have been through the CIAA schedule plenty of times.
Senior James Rucker (8.5 ppg) and junior point guard Julius Barnes, who is averaging nearly three assists a game, and freshman Xavier Fennell have been Hill’s core players.
The Rams can finish the semester out with more momentum if they can win these next two games. They will break for the holidays after Sunday’s game at Bowie State.
“On the road in the CIAA is not easy,” said Hill, a former coach at Shaw. “It’s about doing what you are capable of and doing it well. I think the biggest thing is we want to be consistent in our approach and for the most part the guys have done that.”
Team Conf. Overall
Shaw 1-0 5-2
Claflin 3-3 4-7
Livingstone 0-0 6-2
WSSU 0-0 5-3
J.C. Smith 0-0 2-3
Fay. State 0-0 1-5
St. Aug’s 0-2 2-6
Chowan 1-0 7-0
ECSU 1-0 3-7
Va. State 0-0 5-3
Lincoln (Pa.) 0-0 4-4
Bowie State 0-0 4-5
Va. Union 0-1 3-5