Will Cummings laughs, but doesn’t break focus on the net.
The senior guard practices his free-throw shooting at his team’s practice facility on the third floor of McGonigle Hall. As he catches the ball, the senior begins reminiscing on his days growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. He was an avid sports fan of the Jaguars and the Florida Gators.
He dribbles the ball once, and the sound reverberates through the gym.
He speaks about his childhood memories of Gators superstar quarterback Tim Tebow and speedy receiver Percy Harvin.
“I was too small to play [football],” the now 6-foot-2-inch point guard says as he spins the ball on his hand. “I had to stick to basketball.”
It was a tough year for Cummings’ favorite Florida teams, both missing postseason play and tallying losing records, but he noted the future is bright not only for the two downtrodden football teams, but the Owls as well.
“It’s a learning curve every year because you have new guys on the court,” Cummings said. “It’s been pretty good so far, I’m learning the guys day to day and we have been gelling. I’m excited to get to play with them.”
Cummings, the team’s leading returning scorer with 16.8 points per game, heads a team coming off a 9-22 (4-14 American Athletic Conference) record.
The disappointing year ended in the team’s first time missing the NCAA tournament since 2007, and featured many struggles on the defensive side of the ball.
“Everybody’s got to contribute on the defensive end,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “It’s a team concept. … We can be good defensively we just have to keep plugging away at it. That’s been a big focus for us.”
“That was disappointing for us last year when we weren’t so good, when the previous six years we had been hanging our hat on our defense, so we’ve got to do a better job,” Dunphy said.
Cummings has noticed an amplified level of attention on the defensive end during the offseason.
“[Defense] is something the coaches have stressed since last season,” Cummings said. “During offseason workouts that’s really all that we have focused on.”
Former Texas forward Jaylen Bond, who transferred to Temple last season, will be an operative part of improving on defense.
Bond, who is currently coming off an ankle injury suffered in practice, is expected to be ready for the first game. He said he has prioritized on-ball defense and offensive rebounding for himself.
“[My role is] basically to be the anchor defensively,” Bond said. “I need to be able to guard anybody, ones through fives. Buying into the team concept of defense, I feel like if I do that I can help my team a lot.”
Bond joins fellow transfers Jesse Morgan, from Massachusetts and Devin Coleman from Clemson as the group is ready to contribute.
Unlike Bond, however, Morgan and Coleman are not eligible to play until the start of the second semester, which will keep them out of the team’s first 10 games.
Morgan, alongside Coleman, is set to return in the team’s game against Delaware on Dec. 18, is expected to improve the backcourt shooting of the Owls’ backcourt.
The Owls ranked No. 246 in NCAA Division I basketball teams in field goal percentage with 42.8 percent and No. 182 in the country with a 3-point percentage of 33.8. In response to the lackluster scoring percentages, Dunphy has looked to longer range shooters like Morgan, who shot 36 percent from beyond the arc in his final season at UMass, to bolster the percentage.
“[Morgan is] a terrific jump shooter, he’s got great range,” Dunphy said. “We can run him out to about 25 feet and have him shoot about five threes and hopefully [if] two of them go in, then we’d be in good shape.”
In addition to the three transfers is four-star recruit Obi Enechionyia out of St. James high school in Maryland. Enechionyia averaged 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in his senior year.
The Owls coaching staff has also seen adjustments, adding former Owl and 76er Aaron McKie as an assistant coach over the summer.
McKie, who grew up in Philadelphia, spent six years as an assistant coach with the 76ers, has seen noticeable differences in approaching the college game after his stint in the pros.
“This is all new to me, I just started in August and boy, college is a totally different ball game in comparison to professional basketball,” McKie said. “Professional basketball is just basketball. In college it’s compliance and making sure the guys are doing well in the classrooms and recruiting and practice plans. … It’s a little bit different.”
With so many moving pieces, Dunphy has acknowledged the team might struggle with chemistry early on, especially with Morgan and Coleman set to enter the mix ten games into the year.
“I think that’s always a chemistry issue,” Dunphy said. “We’re going from not having these guys to not only putting one guy on, but two guys in the lineup. We’ll see how that goes, we’re going to have the manage and massage that whole process.”
However, with the depth, Dunphy plans to utilize his bench more often in order to emphasize effort on the defensive end, and Cummings and his teammates know it.
“Last year we had seven guys out there,” Cummings said. “You really couldn’t come out of the game. It definitely is a factor now that you have to play defense because we have a longer bench this year.”
EJ Smith can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter @ejsmitty17