Fordham head coach Jeff Neubauer has entered practice with a clear message for his group on how much he would like to see them improve.
“Our level of improvement, what we expect from this group has nothing to do, it doesn’t compare to other teams in the Atlantic 10,” Neubauer said. “Our goal is to be the most improved team in the country.”
The first year head coach’s lofty goal, as he explains, has to be their mantra as they head towards improving on a 10-21 finish last season. Neubauer’s emphasis so far has been improving the Rams on the defensive side of the ball, where he made his reputation at Eastern Kentucky. Last season his Colonels were first in the nation in turnover margin and generated 9.7 steals per game, which ranked second in the country. For this reason, early practices have been a lot more competitive than in year’s past.
“We play very aggressively within our man-to-man defense,” Neubauer said. “We play more aggressively in the half court than any team in the country. We’ve got guys playing with that much effort and that much aggression, then it really leads very challenging situations. It’s guys playing exceptionally hard.”
Senior Mandell Thomas said Neubauer’s daily emphasis has been making sure players are giving their peak effort in this new system.
“Play as hard as you can, effort and really, really dig down on defense,” Thomas said. “We really think we could be a good defensive team, but it all starts with effort and focus.”
It has been easy for Neubauer and his staff to convince all the returning players that this way will help turn around a program whose last winning season was in 2007.
“The locker room that I’ve inherited, they’ve done nothing but lose their entire career,” Neubauer said. “These guys are eager to win, I mean they are absolutely chomping at the bit to show that they are winners. These guys are doing everything we ask and they’re doing it with great effort.”
Embracing that change has been a transition, especially for Thomas who led the team in scoring last season, but one they hope can turn the program around.
“Change is not always a bad thing,” Thomas said. “You got to change for the better and these coaches making a different change – offensive wise and defensive wise – you got get used to it, because hopefully there’s some winning.”
One downside to Neubauer’s approach is he believes his team’s defensive approach will be harmed by the rule changes for the 2015-16 season. Those changes include reducing the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds as well as getting rid of the five second closely guarded call.
“Our defensive possessions were already very brief, like the way we play so aggressively we force teams to make plays quickly, so the shot clock was not a factor at the defensive end,” Neubauer said. “At the offensive end we actually had patience and so now we cannot be as patient as we like.”
What Neubauer hopes to change the most through his system is Fordham’s struggles as a program. That all begins on Nov. 14 with a road game at UT-Arlington followed by nine straight home games in the non-conference schedule before a tip with Boston College at Barclays Center.
“After what Fordham has endured here for the last couple of decades, I mean the most important thing here at Fordham is winning,” Neubauer said. “This team needs to win and we need to show recruits that Fordham can win. We need to show our fans and our students here at Fordham that Fordham can win.”
“This group really wants to go out and prove that they’ve got value and talent as basketball players. Hopefully we can find some ways to win basketball games.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.