The date was March 30. Jeff Neubauer had just been hired to replace Tom Pecora as Fordham’s head coach, and he was scheduled to meet with local media at an introductory press conference the following afternoon.
Instead of celebrating his climb up the coaching ladder from Eastern Kentucky and the OVC to the Atlantic 10 that night, he insisted on not only meeting with his new team -- a standard practice -- but also holding workouts.
“My first thing when I got here to New York,” Neubauer said, “was I wanted to get these guys out on the court and let them get a feel for me and start to teach them.”
That left an important impression on the Rams.
“I knew right then he meant business,” senior guard Mandell Thomas said.
As the Neubauer era enters its 11th month, the program’s growth has been evident. The Rams take a 12-9 (3-7 A-10) record into Wednesday’s meeting with St. Bonaventure. That’s hardly a sparkling record, but Fordham last won more than 10 games in 2007-08, when Dereck Whittenburg’s team went 12-17. That group also went 6-10 in conference, while no Fordham team has won more than four league games since then.
Perhaps Fordham benefited from a non-conference schedule ranked as the nation’s weakest, according to kenpom.com. But the fact of the matter is that, in recent years, Fordham had lost to teams like Colgate. This year, the Rams beat the Raiders by 26 points.
“I certainly believe that this season, regardless of what happens over the next 34 days [until the A-10 championship], this season is a step in the right direction,” Neubauer said.
It has not been smooth sailing entirely. For one, the Rams’ offense has struggled, ranking 256th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (99.2 points per 100 possessions) and 286th in offensive turnover percentage (20.2 percent).
“We’ve had to improve our value for the ball, and that’s really been our biggest challenge,” Neubauer said. “The simple fundamentals, like catching the ball and dribbling, have been really hard for this group.”
Neubauer, who assisted John Beilein at West Virginia from 2002-2005, had success running his mentor’s offensive system at Eastern Kentucky. In his last three seasons -- including the NCAA tournament campaign in 2013-14 -- Neubauer’s teams ranked in the top 30 nationally in effective field-goal percentage.
Neubauer has brought Beilein’s offensive philosophy to Fordham, but the process of implementing it is still in progress.
“Ninety percent of what we do on the offensive end is from my time with him,” Neubauer said. “With that being said, it probably does look different. It’s more conceptual right now than it is specific to the way his teams play.”
But while the offense has struggled, defense has been critical to the team’s success. The Rams rank 129th in adjusted defensive efficiency, at 101.4 points per 100 possessions. That mark has risen to 110.3 points per 100 possessions in conference play, but Fordham is 3-1 in A-10 games in which it has held opponents below a point per possession.
“The only way that we have competed this year is because of our defense,” said Neubauer, whose team ranks ninth nationally with a defensive turnover percentage of 22.8 percent. “If you look at the A-10 games that we’ve won -- UMass, La Salle, George Mason -- it’s only because we guarded them. Offensively we are very poor. We have not won any game in this league because of our offense. It’s only been because of our defensive effort.”
“Effort” is a dominant word in Neubauer’s lexicon these days. As he and his staff guide a daunting rebuild, they have placed paramount importance on effort. That’s why Neubauer held workouts his first night on the job.
He has seen junior guard Jon Severe express a desire to improve his shot selection -- and then actually do it. The touted scorer, who averaged 17.3 points as a freshman and did not shoot better than 34.4 percent in either of his first two collegiate seasons, is averaging 9.6 points on 43.8 percent shooting this year.
He has seen sophomore point guard Antwoine Anderson work to cut his turnover percentage from 34.1 percent to 24.5.
He has seen freshmen and sophomores work to establish themselves in the program moving forward.
And he has seen Thomas and Ryan Rhoomes, in their last season at Fordham, devote themselves to learning a new system.
“Ryan and Mandell have been two terrific senior leaders, just as far as trying to be receptive and trying to be eager and trying to learn,” Neubauer said.
Thomas, who will miss his second straight game Wednesday with a sprained ankle, leads the team with 14.1 points per game.
Rhoomes, meanwhile, has made the largest strides of anyone. Always a good rebounder, Rhoomes accepted Neubauer’s challenge that he develop an offensive post game. The 6-foot-8 senior has more than doubled his scoring average to 13.7 points per game, while raising his field-goal percentage from 55.4 percent a year ago to 66.5 on nearly twice as many attempts.
“[Neubauer] needed me to go out and dominate,” said Rhoomes, who is averaging 8.4 rebounds and a career-best 1.8 blocks per game. “My mentality now is that I’m one of the most unguardable bigs in the A-10. I go out there thinking that.”
Rhoomes, Thomas and fellow senior Ryan Canty won’t reap the long-term benefits of the rebuild. But by helping Neubauer establish his culture based on effort, they’ll impact the future.
That, Rhoomes said, is not part of their mindset right now.
“We’re still trying to win,” Rhoomes said. “We don’t care if we’re at the bottom or the middle. We’re still playing. Our mentality is just to win. We have three wins [in conference]. It’s not like we’re going to give up. Hopefully people see that we’re trying, that the effort is there.”