URI men’s basketball faces St. Bonaventure on Wednesday, December 30th at 4pm. Watch LIVE on YurView – Channel 4 for Cox customers in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island (3-5, 0-1) looks to regain its footing against St. Bonaventure (2-0, 0-0) on Wednesday night in Kingston after three straight losses.
The Bonnies are easing into their groove after COVID-19 delayed their season start. Winners of back-to-back games over Akron and Hofstra, the Bonnies – predicted to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10 – present a formidable test for a Rams team in search of cohesion. Here’s my take:
Respect. Since 2015-16 Rhode Island has carved out a 107-57, 59-31 A-10 record (not including this year’s results), a noteworthy 21+ wins per year and two NCAA Tournament appearances over the five-year span. What you may not know is that St. Bonaventure is 105-57, 62-28 A-10 during that same five-year period, with one NCAA appearance and an NIT berth to its credit.
That is because Mark Schmidt is one of the finest coaches in the country.
Don’t try to convince me there is a better one in the Atlantic 10, whether Bob McKillop, Chris Mooney, or Anthony Grant is your choice. Compiling a 231-180 record at SBU after taking over an absolute dumpster fire 13 years ago, Schmidt has built the program into a contender in one of the top leagues in the country.
He brings grit to everything from talent identification to player development and has discovered a formula that allows his program to punch with anyone perennially. Let’s ditch the convenient phrase of “Schmidt does so much for being up in Olean…” which dilutes the recognition he, his staff, and players deserve. Carrying a 105-57, 62-28 record over a five-year span plays no matter your zip code.
Answering the pack-line challenge. The Bonnies will mix defenses some but the staple under Schmidt has been the pack-line. A so-called sagging man-to-man, the pack-line features on-ball pressure while the remaining defenders sag to the gaps to frustrate dribble penetration. Rhode Island thrives off of dribble penetration, but with junior rim-protector Osun Osunniyi – one of the league’s best – offering an additional firewall behind an already stingy pack, seams won’t come easy.
This one is going to be about patience and personnel for Rhode Island.
Ball movement and baseline opportunism can exploit the pack, but personnel will loom large. Perimeter looks are available, so expect David Cox to tinker with his depth and versatility to try to find hot hands. Players like D.J. Johnson, newly-eligible Allen Betrand, and Malik Martin who rediscovered his stroke last game could play key roles in this one if they can knock down perimeter shots — after ball movement.
This is a maturing Bonaventure team with juniors Osunniyi, Kyle Lofton, Dom Welch and Jaren Holmes (formerly English) all logging 29.5 minutes or more per contest. They’ll tighten up defensively as the game progresses and buckets will become more of a premium, which leads to the next point of emphasis…
Start fast. It is imperative for Rhode Island to avoid sloth-like starts that have plagued them in recent contests. To begin, that requires hanging onto the orange. Ram coaches have had 12 days of Christmas to hit the hardwood and drill ball security into this developing unit.
Senior Fatts Russell – 29 to 16 – is the only Rhode Island player to own a positive assist-to-turnover ratio through eight games. That must change immediately for Rhode Island to compete in the A-10.
The Rams have also shot significantly worse in the first halves of games versus the second stanza, connecting on just 42% from the floor early and 49% on the back side. The chasm widens from beyond the arc, where URI shoots just 26% in the first half and 37% in the second.
Bonaventure isn’t going to rip the ball 18 times a game from most opponents, that’s not their game. But their stout positional defense will make finding open looks an exercise in ball movement and patience. Rhode Island needs to move it unselfishly, purposefully, and smartly.
Defensively, Rhode Island must be attentive and aware in defending the ball screen game of Bonaventure. Lofton is dynamite at guard and has two ideal floor spacing complements in perimeter threat Welch and pivot presence Osunniyi.
A[nother] note about Antwan. I’ve hailed the play of Antwan Walker before, but it deserves repeat mention.
When it comes to “winning plays” and toughness, no Ram has ‘brought it’ more than Walker in the early going. Averaging 8.1ppg and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting 56.8% from the field and 86.7% from the line, Walker is coming into his own and doing the important little things nightly. Setting a screen here, rotating there…and his 14 offensive boards lead the Rams by a landslide, with no other teammate above six on the year.
Look for him to get increased touches given his ability to score, vision, and facilitating ability from the elbow on down – while he continues to set the tone on the defensive end.
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