Rhody Rams’ Talent And Depth Will Lead To Growth

Antwan Walker
Antwan Walker – Photo Courtesy URI Athletics

Rhode Island walked away from Mohegan Sun’s Bubbleville in-tact, enduring an ambitious schedule to begin the season.

At 2-2, the Rams might privately acknowledge that they could’ve had at least one more ‘W’ over the weekend, but, for a unit integrating seven fresh faces into the rotation, there’s no shame in splitting four games over five days against quality competition.

HERE ARE 10 ‘AT FIRST SIGHT’ TAKEAWAYS ABOUT DAVID COX’S NEW-LOOK SQUAD:

THEY’RE DEEP:

Like aquifer deep. Nine Rams played at least 13.3 minutes per game over the four-game stretch, and that doesn’t even include returning starter Jermaine Harris as he works his way back from a foot ailment.
While you’d figure Cox would need to tap the reserves more with the condensed schedule, the bench brigade isn’t simply a collection of ‘get-me-by’ guys. All can play and offer more positional balance and versatility than that seen in Kingston in a long time.

FROM CONNECTED TO CONNECTING:

Jeremy Sheppard and DJ Johnson sat side by side last year watching the action, working together behind closed doors, forming a bond, and awaiting their turn to contribute.

Now it is here and the two are a combined 11-25 (44%) from long range, adding an important floor spacing element.

Jeremy Sheppard
Jeremy Sheppard – Photo Courtesy URI Athletics

CONTAINMENT IS KEY:

Defensive disruption out high can be a calling card for these Rams, but it can’t come at expense of containment.

When Rhody gambled or pressured irresponsibly, ASU and BC guards took the invitation to get downhill and create mayhem. That’s kryptonite, more so early in the season because new faces are learning rotations which aren’t as ingrained as they will be in the coming weeks.

It leads to reactivity, open shot opps for opponents and, yes, foul trouble as out of position defenders scramble to chase the play. Containment out high should be an early priority.

As the unit’s awareness, communication, and familiarity improve, the steals will come.

AT HOME:

That is exactly how junior Antwan Walker (11.3ppg, 6.8rpg) looks these days.

After learning his way last year, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward is playing comfortable and tough, like an F150. His chemistry with senior Fatts Russell is plainly evident, as the two combined for several pretty hookups over the weekend.

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DEFENSE FIRST; FROM THE JUMP:

Credit Cox and staff for the starting lineup adjustment after two games and the tone tilt toward defense, inserting Malik Martin and Makhel Mitchell (1.8bpg).

It’s working.

Mitchell offers a rim protecting presence and enjoys digging in on that end. Martin injects additional grit in the half court setting.

Watch the San Francisco game again. If you didn’t see it the first time around, you’ll notice him alter a shot or two and guide a would-be penetrator off his driving lane to force a miss. Little things. And remember, regardless of who starts, all will get minutes.

CHARITY STRIPE?

Incomplete but intriguing.

After 21-35 and 9-18 efforts in games 1 and 2 (56% combined) the Rams found their legs and shooting stroke and went 64-75 over the next two, 85%.

Makhi Mitchell turned an 0-7 start after two games into a 12-14 effort in games three and four.

Team-wise, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle – but it’s worth mentioning that they’re generating FT opps at a high frequency the way the great A-10 Xavier teams did several years ago.

Overall, the Rams are converting at 73.4%. That would’ve been top 4 in the A-10 a year ago, a significant improvement over the 68% mark (11th) of the 2019-20 Rams.

Fatts Russel
Fatts Russell – Photo Courtesy URI Athletics

ROOM TO SHARE:

As these players learn about each other’s tendencies and develop more Russell-Walker like chemistries, the assist numbers should rise.

Cox and staff sure hope so. The Rams are last in the league (early sample, acknowledged) at 10.3 per game and carrying a negative assist to turnover ratio of .73 to 1. Here are the breakouts:

  • ASU – 14 helpers on 29 buckets
  • BC – 7 helpers on 26 buckets
  • USF – 11 helpers on 25 buckets
  • San Fran – 9 helpers on 23 buckets

THEY CAN SCORE IT:

Rhody is averaging 80ppg so far, shooting 48.6% from the floor, and being buoyed by nearly 39% of their points coming from the stripe over the last two games.

They can score it off the bounce with Jalen Carey looking more and more comfortable, boast deep threats Sheppard and Johnson, Russell is as dynamic as you’ll find, and the forwards are mobile and improving around the bucket.

Secure the ball and share it and the points will come – more efficiently. The less sticky the ball is, the tougher they’ll be to guard.

Jalen Carey
Jalen Carey – Photo Courtesy URI Athletics

HE’S READY:

The word from the coaching staff throughout the pre-season was that freshman guard Ishmael Leggett would be ready to contribute.

He proved it. Leggett commits to defending, stays within is own lane (a favorite phrase of former Charlotte coach Alan Major I’ve co-opted) in that he understands and plays to his strengths and isn’t afraid to mix it up.

Though not quite as ruggedly built, his game reminds me of that of a young Jordair Jett at Saint Louis, who turned out to be one helluva player.

PATIENCE:

It’s not easy to be patient. I’m Italian. I know. But it’s going to be required with this team.

Lots of settlement left as this group learns to play with one another, refines roles, and grows through pains. One day they will fire on all cylinders. The next, they’ll look like my 1999 Point Shavers rec league team. Maybe not. But you get the point.

The talent and depth are undeniable. Watch them grow.

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 NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow on Twitter for five straight years, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44