Following the Rams’ surprise 55-54 last-second win over Dayton at Historic Rose Hill Gymnasium on January 5, Head Coach Jeff Neubauer remained on the home bench for a few moments after his team, ecstatic after sophomore Chris Austin’s trey with 18 seconds left and one final defensive stop provided the margin of victory. Months of uncertainty, frustration and doubt came to a head, and the Rams’ sixth-hear mentor took the opportunity for a quick, cathartic breather before dancing wildly into the locker room to celebrate with his players.
The Rams had their first victory of the 2020-21 campaign, and against an Atlantic-10 preseason favorite at that. With all that his Rams had gone through just to get on the floor as a unit after their time together was limited by the lack of summer workouts, separate quarantines over the first three months of the school year and a moving target of a game schedule, Neubauer thought his squad had hit its nadir following a loss at La Salle just three days earlier.
“I’ve never been so concerned about a group of young men as I was after that La Salle game,” Neubauer told Rebounders Club via Zoom this week. “We played two games and the frustration level was incredibly high.”
“It’s exactly what our guys needed just to realize, hey, we can do this, we don’t have all the answers yet, but we can do this.”
Though the two follow up games ended up in narrow losses to Duquesne and St. Bonaventure, Neubauer sees lots of growth and fast improvement.
“Our guys are fighting like crazy.” he added, “and we’ve got to solve some of those problems.”
The first might be conditioning, severely curtailed by circumstances not conducive to preparing for the rigors of basketball, let alone at the highest levels of Division I. First, the team couldn’t conduct summer workouts, and when players like Cameron Cohn (Houston) and Austin (Pasadena, Calif.) returned to New York, they were subject to 14-day quarantines at a hotel. And while no players tested positive for Coronavirus at first, one coaching staff member did after 11 weeks, necessitating a 14-day quarantine across the team.
That quarantine may have been the one that caused the most difficulty, coming in the fall, during a time when conditioning would be at a premium. Players couldn’t leave their dorm rooms, so even weight training, shooting and running were out of the question.
Then on Thanksgiving Day came the first player testing positive, yielding a third quarantine for another two to three weeks, depending on the player. The first six contests, all non-conference tilts, were canceled. Six full-team practices in, it was time for the first game, December 30 vs. George Washington. A dispiriting loss was followed by a similar defeat at La Salle, before the Dayton win started to show that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel.
With a 1-4 mark heading into Sunday’s nationally televised (NBCSN) contest vs. UMass at Rose Hill, Neubauer gave his team the day mostly off on what would normally be a full practice on Thursday.
“When we first came out of quarantine, we were really trying to protect our players’ bodies physically,” he added. “Here over the last eight days I think our brains are exhausted. So I’ve really tried to tune things down a little bit just to let our brains heal.”
The past three games have seen the Rams get back to their hallmark tight defense which has ranked among the league and nation’s best during Neubauer’s term.
“Our identity as a defensive team was captured in both of those games [Dayton and Duquesne].” he noted. “Then [St. Bonaventure] was easily our best offensive game, 37 points in the first half, so I think our team has accepted that we have to grow, and we are learning through games, getting in physical shape and mental shape in January.”
What Neubauer has seen from his players, in particular how they have processed and reacted to the unprecedented situation, has impressed him.
“Personally, I’m learning a lot about our players,” said Neubauer. “We have a lot of guys back, so certainly there’s familiarity, but some aren’t the same player. Usually you learn in the November games, we’ve had to learn as we play in January. Chris Austin has scored double figures in the last three games, he’s has played the best basketball of his career. He’s gotten his through the flow of the offense.”
So where does the team go from here? After playing most of the roster in the first game, mostly to protect the physical health of athletes who hadn’t had much competition over the past few months, Neubauer limited the minutes to fewer players vs. La Salle. Neither led to the desired result on the court, but he saw them as necessities getting started.
“We are still trying to figure it out,” he explained. “I would not be surprised if guys who have not played much do get some opportunities. We’ve been dealing with a few ankle sprain type injuries, so Yame Butler got a chance to start a game; Onyi [Eyisi] got a chance to start at Duquesne. So it’s unusual for January, but that’s where we are.”
To Neubauer, it’s still the regaining of the defensive identity that’s paramount.
“We are certainly going to guard, and we have to keep growing as a unit.”