When the Rhode Island Rams (6-2) and Providence Friars (7-1) renew their rivalry on Saturday at 2pm, it will mark their first meeting since the Rams pushed aside Providence 75-61 on December 6, 2019. After a 2020 hiatus (part pandemic/part scheduling decision initiated by the Friars) the two programs duel at the Dunkin Donuts Center this weekend.
The home Friars will be the favorite – and deservedly so. Ed Cooley’s team is off to a solid start including a gritty win at Wisconsin and only one blemish at the hands of Virginia. PC vanquished undefeated, yet untested Texas Tech on Wednesday night in the Dunk and now sets sights on doing the same to Rhode Island.
URI is an uneven 6-2, with a pair of wins over rebuilding Boston College, and victories against Bryant, BU, Georgia State, and Harvard. Toss in a forgivable neutral loss to Tulsa and a head scratching defeat to FGCU where the Rams watched a 14-point lead slip away and he we are.
When URI hangs onto the orange they are formidable – shooting 49.9% from the field and 39.1% from three-point range, ranking 1st and 3rd in the Atlantic 10, respectively. The Rams are prone to lapses in fundamental play, however, with poor shots and turnovers that erode offensive handiwork and make life tough.
Taking care of the ball is the ever-present “plain view” theme for the Rams every game. Here are a few additional points of emphasis of which to be mindful when you watch this one:
(ARTICLE CONTAINS RHODY FANS’ OPINIONS ON THE GAME FROM THE “KEANEY BLUE” CHAT ROOM)
BE THERE ON THE CATCH
Numbers alone will tell you Rhode Island defends the three-point shot well. That’s true. The Rams rank fourth in the Atlantic 10, permitting opponents to shoot just .315 from deep. Yet there have been spurts within games where the Rams become complacent in defending the arc. Periods of play against Bryant, Florida Gulf Coast, and Harvard come to mind.
Providence is not a prolific three-point shooting team but led by Noah Horchler (.441) and A.J. Reeves (.333), they are opportunistic. They share the ball effectively and “are ready on the catch” to shoot from the perimeter. Several times against Northwestern, for example, closeouts from Wildcat defenders arrived a split-second too late – and it was PC that pounced. The Friars drilled 14 of 29 on the way to victory. Rhode Island cannot afford concentration losses which allow the Friars clean looks to get cooking in their own building. Pay attention to how communicative and connected the Rams defense remains throughout the game.
WHAT THE FANS ARE SAYING
Makhel (3.3bpg) and Makhi Mitchell (1.1bpg) anchor a Rams interior and provide elite rim protection. Rhode Island ranks 1st in the Atlantic 10 and 5th in the nation in blocked shots at 7.25 per game. Add in Malik Martin and Antwan Walker, each at nearly a block per game, and the forward corps present challenges for Friar finishers if they can stay out of foul trouble. That begins with modulating enthusiasm and aggression, resisting the chance to elevate on the initial shot fake, and playing sound positional defense.
And it’s not just the bigs. PC moves the ball well and makes liberal and productive use of pass fakes out high to subtly move defenses and widen passing lanes or provide shooters the extra instant they need. Rhode Island guards must be mindful and set the tone with responsible perimeter defense.
WHAT THE FANS ARE SAYING
PC offers its own length for Rhode Island to overcome. Preseason All Big East 1st teamer Nate Watson goes 6-foot-10, Horchler 6-8, Ed Croswell 6-8, Justin Minaya 6-7, and even the guards have size with Reeves at 6-6 and Indiana transfer Al Durham at 6-4. Jared Bynum at 5-10 (who missed the Texas Tech game) is the only player in Ed Cooley’s usual eight-man rotation listed under 6-3. It’s a right-sized Big East/P5 team – and a seasoned one with several veterans.
The Friars will be a stiff test for David Cox’s squad. They’re well-coached and will mix defenses. Offensively, it’s incumbent on Rhode Island players to make sound decisions about time and space available to exploit seams, deliver passes, or release shots given PC’s length. It’s about being aware and intentional, not playing timid. Just as PC will attempt to turn the tables on URI’s length, so must URI. Boxers call it “closing the grounds” when they get into a fighter who has superior reach and neutralize their opponent’s ability to fight free and rangy in space. Reactive length isn’t as effective as proactive length. An intriguing subplot to watch.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44