For Fordham junior Jon Severe, it was easy to have a new mindset this season under first year head coach Jeff Neubuaer.
The 6’2” guard remembered his first meeting with Neubauer was a team workout in the gym, which was a sign of things to come.
“He pushes everybody,” Severe said of Neubauer’s practice habits. “Us, the managers, everybody’s got a role in our success, so even trainers, [he] pushes everybody so we all will be successful.”
From there he did not doubt that this would be a system where he would thrive.
“I know myself, I know I could play defense,” Severe said. “It’s just with the mindset of every possession.”
Fordham’s practices are a defensive clinic and they have produced results. The Rams rank 89th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 67.3 points per game and rank ninth in the country in steals per game (9.2).
“I think as a team what we were looking for and what we expressed this to Jon Severe, as well as to all of our players… number one: the defense had to improve,” Neubauer said. “We’ve taken strides there and we’re not there yet.”
Those variables have helped push the junior from a perspective of wanting what he’s been looking for since reaching the Rose Hill campus and hoping that his presence would help turn around the program.
“I mean, just like wanting it and actually doing it,” Severe said is the difference between past seasons. “I mean like I wanted to win, wanting to do, wanting a certain thing and actually this year, actually doing it.”
As a freshman Severe scored a program record 536 points and was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie team. However he took a leave of absence during his sophomore year and when he returned to the Rams, finished the year with 6.7 ppg. Now Neubauer has asked him to become an active defender and he – through 16 games – has already equaled his steal total from last season.
“My freshman year, I just had a scoring mentality I wanted to score,” Severe said. “This put my game all together and there’s more than scoring, trying to get a stop and just like doing the little things that make my team win.”
So far it has led to the Rams best start in non-conference play since the 1970-71 season, before struggling to a 1-4 record in Atlantic 10 play. Neubauer has been preaching for his team to improve and so far and has started to see results by the way they play defense.
“We’re talking about improvement every day,” Neubauer said. “So Jon, Antwoine [Anderson] and Ryan Rhoomes, I think has been incredible with his improvement, Nemanja Zarkovic who comes off the bench for us his improvement especially from the defensive end has been great. That’s certainly where we are as a program where we’ve got to take young guys that are in our program and we’ve got to help them improve as players and that can give us a chance to compete at this level.”
Severe said he feels everything is different from a year ago, where there was a want to play defense, but this year the biggest lesson has been to commit to being a strong defender.
“Just playing every possession hard and just play so hard you got to ask for a sub,” Severe said. “Even when you’re tired, you play hard.”
It is easy to see how the junior has transformed defensively, leaping to contest shots, helping defenders at the perimeter. He already has nine blocks this season and only needs two more to eclipse his combined total from his first two seasons.
Most of all, the defensive commitment has helped towards the overall goal: producing a stronger program.
“I mean, I came in to try and turn the program around and just like win for everybody, win for myself and actually win in my home town,” Severe said. “That’s the whole number one thing to do is win.”
Severe has averaged 9.4 ppg this season and has a career-best true shooting percentage of 53.4%, but in Neubauer’s system the offense follows their defense.
“Our defense has been saving us, so just having the mindset of to keep playing defense and trying to get layups and steals,” Severe said. “Lately in basketball games, it’s our defense that’s saving us because our offense has been kind of struggling, so we just try to fix it and then just keep going.”
The Rams have struggled so far in conference play offensively, being the worst team per possession in Atlantic 10 play and have produced the most turnovers per possession. Those are the two other keys Neubauer has wanted to fix, along with the defense.
“We need to shoot the ball better and part of that is shot selection and I think our shot selection has improved in general,” Neubauer said. “Then finally taking care of the ball is the other place where we really felt like we can make a difference, or we can help this team improve, and we have not made an impact on that here as a program.”
“We still have a very poor value for the ball, so if those are the three things we talked about with all of our guys and just looking at Jon’s stats, I think you can see that he has improved as a defender, he’s improved as a passer and he’s taking better shots.”
Even for all their success they have had into January, Severe knows they have plenty to prove over the season’s next two months.
“Right now we haven’t accomplished nothing,” Severe said. “I mean we’re having a good record, but as we’ve seen in conference right now, we’re trying to win the A-10 championship. Right now we got to keep being hungry and keep on going. We can’t be satisfied.”
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.