Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey has a bunch of plaques stuck in his office. It’s not a surprise to him that practically all of them belong to Willie Rodriguez.
“They send those things out at the end of the year, and they’re still in my office because he wouldn’t take them,” Dempsey said. “I don’t think he really felt like he deserved them.”
“I think he expected more out of himself, he’s a real competitor and he’s really hard on himself. I thought that our struggles, and his struggles at times, were fuel for his fire and he’s become the hardest worker on our team.”
Rodriguez delivered a freshman campaign where he started all but two games, led the team in scoring (11.8 ppg) and rebounding (5.5 rpg), and earned a spot on the conference’s All-Rookie team. He won Rookie of the Week twice and won the fans’ vote for America East Player of the Year.
“I’m going to take them eventually, but I would rather turn that in for a conference championship this year,” Rodriguez said. “Those personal awards don’t mean nothing to me unless we’re winning, that’s the big picture for me. I’d rather be holding up a conference championship than a rookie plaque or whatever it is that they gave me.”
Rodriguez has been used to success on the court, winning Florida Metro Conference Player of the Year twice in high school and the MVP award of his prep school conference championship, which made a six-win season even more difficult to handle.
“When we’re at home and we lose I just kind of lock myself in my room after a loss and really don’t want to talk to no one,” Rodriguez said. “Little things like that, it’s not fun.”
The Bearcats showed signs of turning their program around, and 11 of their 15 players this season will be freshmen or sophomores. Their America East playoff experience, while only one game last season, saw them have a chance to tie at Stony Brook in the game’s final minute.
“I remember last play driving down the middle and hitting Justin [McFadden] for a wide open three, just rolls in and out,” Rodriguez said. “I thought we could have won that game, but plays didn’t go our way, but I still think about it today, but I mean planning on not feeling that feeling, but in order to do that we got to work hard execute the game plan that coach has for us and just keep working in practice.”
Knowing the struggles they went through in their first year, in talking to coaches at his prep school they told him to not get used to losing. The 6’6″ sophomore has worked on his defense as much as he can with the coaching staff and worked on improving his shooting from last season.
Dempsey said Rodriguez is very easy to coach, in that he only has to point him in the right direction and rarely needs to motivate him. That mentality comes from a want to win over anything else.
“I think sometimes I evaluate myself a little bit too much to be honest, which I kind of have to control myself on that, but I mean I take pride in the sport that I play to win,” Rodriguez said. “I do push myself to the limit to get better everyday. I want to do that, not only for myself, but also for my teammates; they see me going hard it makes them want to go hard also.”
Yet Rodriguez is hardly outspoken, Dempsey said the he dreads hearing his name called into the media room after games. He wants to let his play do the talking. But Dempsey hopes that Rodriguez’s work, the workouts he gets in before class and the work he puts in will start to seep through the program as he begins to lead the Bearcats.
“I think if he’s going to take the next step as a player and as a leader, he has to take all the extra work and all the hard work that he’s putting in, all the extra workouts and he’s got to demand that of the guys around him,” Dempsey said. “I think one of the qualities that great players have is they have the ability to inspire others. I think he does step one, which is put in the work, and step two is demand the same of those around you. I think that’s an area where I’d like to see him take a step forward with his maturity.”
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.