Column: Why URI’s David Cox needs to change his approach

Sports

KINGSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – It’s time to start to question the moves, and lack thereof, that David Cox has made this season.

It was late Saturday night, the Rams were run off the floor by a rebuilding and severely undermanned UMass team. Their third straight loss. Cox chose to sit Antwan Walker longer than he played him in the first half despite being virtually unguardable (14pts, 6rebs).  

Not because of injury – I asked. And he hadn’t committed a foul.

“Why he played nine minutes in the first half, I’m not sure,” Cox said to me. 

“What does he normally play in the first half? Probably nine or ten minutes.”  

Does an outstanding performance only deserve normal minutes?  

I followed up.

Question: When he’s having a career night like the way he (was), is there sometimes an adjustment to a rotation, where when they’re lacking a big man like Tre Mitchell that (Walker) should be in there a little bit more with the success he had?  

Response: “He ended up with a career-high tonight. If you believe that I should have played him before in the first half that’s the first time you’ve asked me a question like that. Maybe we can discuss that later. I played him nine minutes. I’m not sure how to answer that question. Played him nine minutes in the first half, finished with a career-high tonight. He had an awesome night.”  

He sure did. But he could have had an even awesome-er night.  

In the end, despite logging a pedestrian 24 minutes, Walker still posted career-highs in points (24) and rebounds (16).   

Cox failed to acknowledge he limited the best player in the arena. And by doing so, he didn’t give his team the best chance to win.

It’s hard not to wonder what could have been if Walker wasn’t buried for seven straight minutes midway through the first half and the final 4:02, where URI’s one-point lead turned into a five-point hole at the break.

Cox seemed content with sitting him in lieu of other forwards (Jermaine Harris, DJ Johnson, Malik Martin) who combined for three points, eight rebounds, one assist to three turnovers and were -29 on the floor. 

First thing that comes to mind when giving playing time to those that rarely produce?  

Ego-managing.  

Making sure players (and parents) remain happy in hopes of avoiding another mass exodus like what happened last year when five underclassmen transferred. 

It’s understandably frustrating for Cox, who inherited a program fresh off back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time ever since the program first fielded a Division I team in 1903-04.   

That’s wasted time, effort and energy. The culture and success from the previous season flushed down the toilet.  

Essentially, it’s starting over.  

But is rewarding players who aren’t producing the answer? No. Especially when it’s not resulting in wins.  

Outside of all-time great Fatts Russell and senior guard Jeremy Sheppard, who average 32 and 30 minutes respectively, the other nine scholarship players average between 14.3 minutes per game and 22.1 minutes per game.   

In the last 30 years, dating back to the 1990-91 season, only three of the 39 regular season league champions (7%) — including division winners when the league was split into Eastern and Western divisions — have had 10 players average double digit minutes. 

So, the chances this strategy results in championships – something Cox said was “the bar” back in his first press conference in early April 2018 – are super slim. 

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On Dec. 29, URI was 3-5. Cox said to the media we should expect him to “shorten the rotation based on productivity.”  

“I can tell you by the second half, by the home stretch, you will see it shortened based on productivity.” 

Yet, here we are, six weeks later, with no true commitment to change. There have been slight tweaks. But the team remains two games below .500, in the bottom half of the league and ready to sit out the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year since he took over. 

Jalen Carey played only five minutes in Wednesday’s loss to VCU because rookie Ish Leggett was the star. Carey sat the entire second half. Then, Saturday, Carey struggled in six minutes in the first half. He sat the next 20:06 of game time. With 6:25 left and Rhody down by eight, Cox called his number.   

At that point, this was Carey’s line: zero points, two rebounds, zero assists, two turnovers, one steal. For the season, the guard has 12 assists to 41 turnovers.  

Why did Cox think to even look his way let alone put him in the game to crack that “shortened rotation based on productivity?”

33 seconds later, Carey drove the lane seemingly without a plan — for the 1000th time this year – and was whistled for an offensive foul. Turnover. And somehow he still earned two more minutes of action, in crunch time, after that.  

It’s almost identical to another move Cox made. He put Allen Betrand in with 5:52 left. Betrand was 0-for-4 from the floor to that point with one rebound. Nearly invisible. At the 4:41 mark, Betrand missed another three-ball. Next possession? A missed layup.  

For the season, he’s shooting 33% from the floor and 28% from deep. In his last six games, he’s 6-for-32 (19%). Though in that time, he’s still playing more than half the game. 

For both Carey and Betrand, this isn’t one or two off nights, or a poor stretch. It’s an entire season’s worth of reasons to play others ahead of — and instead of  — them. 

But why do they continue to get time?  

Because it’s what they normally get. 

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In May, I spoke one-on-one with Betrand the day after he committed to URI over Minnesota, Butler, DePaul, Dayton and Richmond.  

When I asked about the reason he chose URI, Betrand said “building around me. They want me to be a focal point of their offense.”  

Carey, a Syracuse transfer and former consensus top-80 recruit out of high school, chose URI over Marquette, Creighton, Connecticut, Georgetown, Alabama and BYU this past spring.  

20 games in, Carey’s had many chances to learn the system and play through mistakes. It’s clear he’s still not comfortable or ready or consistent enough to play at this level.

Junior Jermaine Harris also hasn’t shown growth. The former top-100 recruit has been a bust. He’s never led URI in scoring and only twice in rebounding. In 79 career games, he’s at 4.6 points and 2.9 rebounds.  

With emerging frontcourt pieces in Makhel Mitchell and the aforementioned Walker, there’s not much time to fit Harris in. And even less opportunity when Makhel’s brother, Makhi, returns from injury. 

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Like many of his teammates, Antwan Walker has thrived when given more playing time.  

The redshirt junior is shooting 62% from the floor in the 15 games he averages the same or more minutes than his season average. And according to KenPom, he’s the most efficient offensive player on the Rams despite a low usage.  

To boot, he leads the conference in field goal percentage.  

The same can be said for Makhel who has turned out to be quite a bright spot for the Rams this season. He and Makhi will form a nice 1-2 punch up front for years to come.

The rookie Leggett set career highs in points in the first two starts he got.  

Throw in the silky-smooth shooting Sheppard, and Russell, then mix in a team-first guy like Malik Martin. Sprinkle in sharpshooter DJ Johnson. That’s a solid rotation.

And in the case of injuries or foul trouble, there’s still depth pieces with Betrand, Harris and Carey. But depth pieces shouldn’t get time just because they show up and work hard. That should be the standard. Playing time should be earned through game production. 

In a season like this, with so many uncertainties, sure, maybe you could make a case to play this style of ‘everyone gets a chance no matter what’ through five, or 10, or even 12 games.  

But not 20. It’s too long. 11 players at 14-plus minutes per game? Unsustainable. 

Feels more like CYO basketball than Division I hoops.  

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URI has played 20 games. It’s avoided a COVID pause and team workouts on campus began July 20.  

That’s unheard of in college basketball this year.  

There’s been ample time to mold the roster.  

However, Cox and his staff haven’t taken advantage of it. They still don’t have a definitive rotation or established identity. Because of that, they’ve also struggled in late game situations (0-5 in games decided by 5 points or less).  

History indicates Cox is capable of capping a rotation. He went eight-deep in 2018-19 and nine-deep in 2019-20. Those teams went 18-15 (9-9) and 21-9 (13-5).  

At 9-11 (6-7), and with trips to Saint Louis and Davidson this week, URI is on track to have its worst finish in league play since assistant coach T.J. Buchanan’s junior season. 

At halftime of Wednesday’s game vs. VCU, Cox paused as his team jogged to the locker room. He crossed his arms, ducked his head and shook it in disbelief. Then, as soon as the buzzer sounded on Saturday, the ESPN2 cameras caught Rhody’s captain, Fatts Russell, visibly frustrated.  

Two telling signs.  

The head coach has decisions to make, and questions to answer.  

It’s enough of being Mr. Nice Guy.  

That normally doesn’t get you anywhere in college sports.

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