One year ago, the CCRI men’s basketball team came into its season with high hopes. Head coach Rick Harris called the team one of the most talented he’d ever had.
Sure enough, the Knights’ level of play matched the pre-season hype, as they won the Region XXI title and the Northeast District title. Their season didn’t end until they lost in the NJCAA Division II national championship game to Mott Community College.
It was a special year, one that saw CCRI reach the championship game for only the second time in the school’s history.
Now, with a new season starting up, the Knights might be even more talented than last year’s bunch, and their expectations are as high as ever. They want to win the whole thing.
But they need to jell. With only four returning players, it’s a young team that will have to come together quickly in order to make the pursuit of a national title realistic.
“Talent-wise, we’re more talented, but we’re not a better team,” Harris said. “The chemistry is not what it was last year. That’s what brought us to the finals – our chemistry was tremendous. We’re trying to get there, but it takes time.”
So far, it’s been an up-and-down road. The Knights were ranked No. 3 in the country to start the season, and are currently 3-2. They lost their season opener at the Roxbury Invitational to the host team, Roxbury CC, before coming back and beating Cayuga CC 90-61 in the second game of the tournament.
After that they lost to Division I power Monroe CC and then rallied from an 18-point halftime deficit to defeat Cuyahoga Community College on Sunday. On Tuesday, they defeated UConn Avery Point 92-55.
CCRI has now fallen out of the top 20 completely, but is still the first team receiving votes.
Needless to say, it’s been a little hectic in the early going.
“We’ve got some good experience, but we’re going through some growing pains,” Harris said.
Adding to the growing pains is a key injury. In the first game of the season, against Roxbury, CCRI star swingman Desmond Williams hurt his toe and had to leave the game in the second half.
A NCJAA First-Team All-American selection last season, Williams already had 26 points against Roxbury before leaving the game. Initially, the injury was believed to be a toe fracture. Now, though, after a second x-ray was taken, it’s become apparent that there is no break.
Thankfully, Williams is expected to return sometime this week.
On the surface – and perhaps on the scoreboard thus far – Williams’ injury was a big blow. The Torrington, Conn., native is a NCAA Division I prospect, and has received offers from multiple schools, including URI. But while the Knights were without their best player, they were able to increase the workload of a few other players, which could benefit the team down the road.
Former North Providence and North Kingstown standout Rob Hazard has seen the bulk of the work in Williams’ absence, and Hazard is already making an impact in his freshman season.
Freshman Jerome Harris, from Hartford, Conn., has also seen his minutes increase with Williams sidelined.
Hazard was one of the top high school players in Rhode Island over the past two years, and Harris is a potential Division I prospect who could become CCRI’s next star.
“We’re playing without him which is not what you want, but it is has helped us in that in place of him Jerome Harris, a freshman, and Rob Hazard, a freshman, are getting a lot more minutes, getting a lot more shots,” Harris said. “It’s definitely going to help us when Desmond comes back.”
Plus, CCRI has plenty of other top-level players to help keep the team’s head above water with Williams out.
Heading that list is sophomore point guard Bryan Yarce. Yarce starred at Cranston West in high school before jumping right into a starting role for CCRI last season. He’s the Knights’ unquestioned leader on the court.
“Fantastic player,” Harris said of Yarce. “One of the better floor generals I’ve ever coached. He’s a fantastic kid. He’s a total package.”
Playing power forward is sophomore Isaac Medeiros. Medeiros, a former Johnston High School star, saw substantial minutes last year as a freshman and has stepped into a starting role this year.
One year has made a big difference for the former Panther.
“Very strong, physical player,” Harris said. “He’s 6-foot-6 now. He’s drawing some good interest from colleges around New England.”
Williams, Yarce and Medeiros are all serving as captains, as well as sophomore Steven Bevilacqua, who played at Hendricken two years ago.
Bevilacqua’s primary role is to provide three-point shooting off the bench, something he’s excelled at.
“He’s a three-point shooting specialist,” Harris said. “He’s worked on his game to become a more complete player, but basically what we need from him is his shooting.”
Starting thus far alongside Yarce, Harris, Hazard and Medeiros has been freshman Pat Marchand, who played his high school ball at Cranston East.
Marchand stands 6-foot-7 and gives the Knights a big body and some skill down low.
“He knows he’s got to get in better shape and that’s a process and it’s going to take time,” Harris said. “But he’s a very talented kid. He has great hands, good footwork, shoots the ball, very fundamentally sound for a big guy.”
The Knights will also rely on a few other players to contribute.
Six-foot-8 center Elijah Okagbare, from Bourne, Mass., has started a game this year and will be a valuable piece on the inside.
Rob Alers, a sophomore, is in his first year with the Knights. The former Central Falls star will be used as Yarce’s immediate back-up.
Steve Rush, a former Cranston West player, will use his 6-foot-4 frame and help out at the small forward and power forward spots in his freshman campaign. Freshman Flavio Barros, a former Woonsocket player, will play forward as well.
Another forward is Shaquille Ricketts, a freshman from Hartford, Conn. Former Shea star Rudy Britto is another freshman, and he’ll be playing some guard and small forward as well.
The Knights also have 6-foot-4 forward Chris Light, who is used as a catch-and-shoot type option off the bench.
All in all, there’s a lot of quality depth at just about every position. It provides CCRI the option of playing fast-paced, and also using a variety of different-sized lineups.
“With our system, we’re looking to run and we’re looking to press, so we need depth,” Harris said. “A lot of guys get a chance to play – nine to 11 we try to play during the game.”
And once Williams returns to the lineup, Harris hopes that his team starts to really show what it’s capable of.
The sky is the limit.
“We always have high expectations,” Harris said. “Our goal is to win the national championship, long-term wise. We don’t talk about that every day, but that’s the long-term goal.”
CCRI was scheduled to be back in action on Saturday at 2 p.m. on the road against Orange Community College in Middletown, N.Y.
Their next home game is Thursday, December 6 against Dean College.