CHICAGO â€“ Romeo Weems, Markese Jacobs and Nick Ongenda spent last weekend in New York getting an up-close introduction to the BIG EAST Conference along with tips on transitioning to the world of elite college basketball.
The fifth annual Freshman Fundamentals program featured presentations from former New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps, former BIG EAST players Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono, Seton Hall’s Michael Nzei, Connecticut’s Donny Marshall and St. John’s Tarik Turner, Kalimah Johnson on relationship management and safety, Dave Popkin of the CBS Sports Network on communication skills and Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble on mental health awareness.
“Freshmen Fundamentals helped with some of the questions I had coming into college,” said Jacobs who averaged 30.2 points a game last season for Uplift in the Public League and was the No. 3-rated player in the state and No. 87 in the country. “What to do about getting comfortable in a new environment and getting the hang of college basketball. I learned about managing my time and keeping a positive attitude from a mental standpoint.
“A key point at Freshmen Fundamentals was staying positive. If you’re not strong mentally, the stress will take over your life.”
Ongenda focused on the former BIG EAST standouts. Turner and Marshall currently serve as television analysts for FOX Sports.
Turner and the panelists encouraged the freshmen to enjoy their moments as basketball players and don’t look too far ahead.Â They said the mental approach is important in dealing with the pressures of being a high-level Division I student-athlete. Marshall added that his mother would remind him that “pressure is a privilege.” He said playing in the BIG EAST is a tremendous honor.
“What made an impact on me was listening to the former BIG EAST players which taught us a lot about the college experience,” said Ongenda, a 6-10 forward who averaged 14 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks last season for Southwest Christian Academy (Little Rock, Ark.) and was rated No. 59 in the ESPN Top 100. “One of the guys made it to the NBA, and yet all three are successful in life.
“All the guys talked about learning to become leaders and having a voice on the team. They talked about playing more physical in college and in the BIG EAST.”
Weems had an interesting perspective from the experience.
“One thing I took away from New York is that there is no faith in us,” said Weems, the No. 1 player in Michigan after averaging 27.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.2 steals for New Haven and No. 44 on ESPN’s Top 100 while also starring on the USA U17 World Cup Team last year. “Everyone is looking to Villanova, Seton Hall and programs like that and they don’t look at us.
“I’m using that as motivation. Every time I work out in the weight room, at every practice—I’ll think about that and drive myself to get better every day. I’m ready with all of my teammates to put our team back on the map.”
Weems, who had a quadruple-double of 21 points, 16 rebounds, 12 assists and 10 steals against Michigan power Detroit Country Day and heads up the Blue Demons’ nationally ranked recruiting class, paid close attention to former NBA executive Demps.
“The former Pelicans general manager talked about analytics and stats,” Weems said. “He stated that a good rebounder gets three rebounds in a minute. After listening to him, I want to become a better rebounder. I also want to improve with assists, steals and defense.
“He talked about being a good teammate and not being a jerk to people. Be careful what you post on social media. When you’re competing for a spot on an NBA team with someone who has similar talent, character issues could be the difference.”
Jacobs said the BIG EAST freshmen had a reality check when it came to the NBA.
“For all of us, our dream is to play in the NBA,” Jacobs said. “But it’s important to have a back-up plan. Study hard in college, get your degree and find something you like to do. The guys on the panel who didn’t make it to the league had a back-up plan and are doing well in life.”
Included in the weekend’s activities was a visit to the iconic Madison Square Garden, also known as “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” Ongenda had never before set foot on the historic court.
“We took a tour, explored the suites and the arena,” he said. “We learned about the history of the Garden and all the big events that took place there including basketball games and rock concerts. I’ve never played there, and my first time will be during the BIG EAST tournament.”
The freshman trio reflected on joining forces in Lincoln Park and the collective impact they could have as one of the most talented Blue Demon teams in recent memory.
“Being from here, I know the history of DePaul and know what has to be done to restore a winning tradition,” Jacobs said. “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder from all the doubters questioning why I came here. The teammates I have around me are very talented and we can really do some damage this season.”
Ongenda seconded the notion.
“I think it’s beneficial to have some haters,” he said. “It gives you motivation and you find yourself focusing even harder in a game. When people doubt you is when you work the hardest to become your best.”
There was some criticism of Weems picking DePaul over Michigan, Michigan State, Oregon and Ohio State.
“I came here because of the great relationship I had with the coaches,” Weems said. “I feel DePaul is a good program even though the record may not reflect it. What I liked about DePaul is their coaches didn’t just try to blow my head up with praise. They told the truth and talked about what I could do to become a better player and a better person.
“I’ve talked to NBA guys at open gyms and camps. They all said it’s not so much where you go to college but what you do with your opportunity. They told me: ‘Make your own story.’
“It’s in my mind to get better every day and put DePaul back into the NCAA tournament. It’s going to take all of us having each other’s backs, caring about each other and flipping this program around.”