Growing pains early in the season

Joe Russel prepares to drive to the hoop.

Coming into the season, the Castleton men’s basketball team felt confident about the future of the program. Both coaches and players felt that’d be taking a big step forward this season compared to last season.

But they’re off a rocky start at 2-4 heading into conference play.

Coach Paul Culpo feels like the team’s ceiling can be pretty high, but their floor can be pretty low. He said it’s all about finding that middle ground and being more consistent as the season progresses.

“I’m not satisfied with where we are right now. Hopefully we can get some stuff accomplished in the next couple of practices. My message is not very complicated: everybody’s 0-0 and Saturday Dec. 2 is the first day of league play and I think we’ve proven we can be good but we’ve got to be more consistent,” Culpo said in an interview last week.

Culpo has seen some positives early on, but it’s the areas they lack as a team that is causing him to feel unsatisfied.

“On the positive side, when we’re connected and moving the ball, I think we’re creating good scoring options. I think our inability to stop the ball in transition and then our turnovers are probably the two things we need to be better at,” Culpo said.

The turnovers have put a dent into the team’s ability to stay in games because a lot of those turnovers are turning into layups or dunks at the other end.

Culpo is trying to address these issues by possibly changing some strategies to help players get in better positions. But he also thinks because they haven’t won much in the past, that it’s affecting the confidence level of some players.

“We as a program right now are pushing this boulder up a hill, and we’ve got a lot of kids that just aren’t playing with confidence. Some of that is the result of not winning in the past, some of the kids are new and that’s a result of them just getting their feet wet and learning. So, I think there’s a combination of things and unfortunately for them I’m not the most patient human being and so it can be tough. But I think the turnovers come from two reasons: you can be sloppy and talented or some of these turnovers we as staff have to do a better job of helping them,” Culpo said.

Both Leonard Brice and Joe Russell share the same concern when it comes to his teammates playing with more confidence.

“I feel the team needs to improve on being competitors, being confident in our game plans, being confident when we take the court to play, trusting our abilities, and for the most part trusting in one another no matter who’s playing. We shouldn’t feel like just some of us are capable of doing something because we all can do it together,” Brice said.

Russell agrees.

“The team needs to improve upon not getting down after a bad play, bad half, or even a bad game. With there being so many games throughout the season, one bad game doesn’t define our team. Although we’re a young team, we need to improve upon not focusing on the past and learning for the future,” Russell said.

Will Radcliff sets up the offense against Anna Maria.

Although Russell feels the team loses some belief depending upon situation, he also believes this team has shown the ability to be resilient.

“The most impressive thing from the team this season has been the ability to bounce back from rough games. Throughout the six games we’ve played this season, back-to-back losses have been rare and even if we don’t win the game, the team usually responds well after a loss. I’ve been impressed with this because we’re considered a young team playing three or four freshman major minutes,” Russell said.

Heading into conference play, both coaches and players have mixed emotions about how things will pan out. Everybody understands what the team is capable of, but it’s up to everybody to figure things out and get back on the right track.

“Heading into conference play, we have to stop turning the ball over and I think we need to play with a purpose. Remove all the X and Os, if I’m watching a team play, I’m really only looking for two things. Are they connected and what I mean by connected is, are they playing with a purpose that benefits the team and are they confident? Right now, I feel like we’re not doing either one of those. And until we figure those things out the strategy and stuff isn’t going to matter. Each individual needs to figure out what their purpose is towards the team,” Culpo said.

Russell, the team’s leading scorer, sees himself as a leader and said being a graduate student has allowed him to learn the ins and outs of what it takes to get through a season.

“I bring leadership to the table that makes the team better. We’re playing a lot of younger guys who have never played collegiate basketball before, so I take much pride in helping them and trying to lead them through tough situations within the game. As a veteran and the oldest player on the team, I obviously try to help the team with my play on the court, but my leadership benefits each individual just as much,” Russell said.

With Russell pouring knowledge into the younger players on the team, he also wants to spread more belief going into conference play. Not only belief in the team but for players to have more belief in their own ability.

“I think that we’ve played quality teams thus far, which will only help us get ready for conference opponents. Regardless of the outcome, I feel confident that each individual on the team will go out every game and do their best to positively impact the game. Although we’re young, players are gaining valuable experience with every minute played,” Russell said.

As the season progresses Culpo believes junior Connor McKearin from Proctor, Vermont is a player to keep an eye on.

“Connor McKearin was the best player on the court for both teams in the loss against Colby-Sawyer. Since we’ve got back from Thanksgiving break, he’s dominated practice and been the best guard on the court every day at practice as well. That’s been a great thing for us because we’ve certainly been looking for someone to step up and play more minutes,” Culpo said.

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