When the final buzzer sounded allowing Oregon to slip by Rhode Island 75-72 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it marked the end of the outstanding career of both Hassan Martin and his front court sidekick Kuran Iverson, a true success story in player development.
The good news? Everyone, yes everyone, else returns — including a deep cache of guard firepower that few teams in the nation can match. From seniors E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell, Jarvis Garrett and Stanford Robinson to contributor Christion Thompson and All-Rookie selection Jeff Dowtin, Dan Hurley’s team is well-stocked on the perimeter. Expect the Rams to play 4-guards a fair share in 2017-18 because, quite frankly, they’re almost forced to… especially with the addition of Daron “Fatts” Russell — another talent we’ll kick the tires on below. In the frontcourt, Cyril Langevine returns and should see 30+ minutes of action a night. He’ll be joined by Nicole Akele, Andre Berry, Mike Layssard, RS freshman Mike Tertsea and the other newcomer, Ryan Preston, a JUCO transfer with two years of eligibility.
So we know Russell and the recently inked (May 18th) Preston are ticketed for Kingston. But what should we expect? Now that the 2-man “class” is complete, let’s drill down on ’em:
Daron “Fatts” Russell
There’s a great quote that goes something like this… “An expert hits the target that nobody else can hit. A genius sees the target that nobody else can see.”
Well, for Russell on offense, he sees edges that others don’t. And he possesses blinding quickness to exploit those, along with excellent vision. Russell pairs a stand up mid-range game and solid finishing ability with either hand to make opponents pay. If you like numbers, click the link above and you’ll see a few. But Russell and his 5-10, 160 pound frame have never been about just the measurables.
As Dan Hurley told me earlier this week, what separates Russell is “[t]he level of competition he’s excelled against, both individually and in experiencing team success,” Hurley said.
“Individually, with Team Final he was able to put together an amazing July. We’ve had some pretty good recruits play in the Peach Jam who have then excelled with us in their career, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a guy play as well as Fatts did in that tournament, which is one of the more high profile events and competitive environments that we get to see. So he did it there with Team Final and then on the high school level, winning the state championship and being the best player on a top ranked national program.”
Where does he fit in 2017-18?
Look, Rhode Island has a bevy of guards… and even the Ram “backups” would start on many other Atlantic 10 teams. But this kid is going to play. Questions like “how many minutes per night is ideal?” — Well, Dan Hurley gets paid to make those decisions, but Russell’s talent, competitive drive, and quickness are undeniable.
There will still be an adjustment period for Russell — to be expected with any freshman. Despite playing against high level competition in high school, he’ll need to calibrate to the consistent length he’ll see; for instance, determining the spacing he’ll need on his jumper to beat high-handed closeouts. Defensively, Russell has opportunistic, quick hands that aid him in playing on the ball. As he learns-up Hurley’s scheme, system and what’s expected of him, his comfort level and impact on defense will rise.
Every single guard in this Rhode Island program is on high alert — and the battles over the summer and into the fall will be fierce. These things have a way of sorting themselves out. But again, as we saw with Jeff Dowtin, if you’re talented you will see the floor.
For Preston, this situation offers – on paper – a seemingly ideal fit. Join a team fresh off an NCAA appearance that’s tabbed to win its league. Join a team loaded with proven talent — but proven talent that tilts towards the back court. Now Preston must seize the opportunity.
Yes, expect the Rams to play four guards… but how quickly Preston adjusts from JUCO ball to high level D1 play could go a long way towards determining the team’s ultimate ceiling. Come postseason time, length and the ability to hold your own on the backboards against BCS caliber teams is crucial on nights where your guards are not slicing, dicing, and making 10-plus long balls.
That’s why Preston’s arrival is timely. “He’s a 6-7, 210 pound, strong athlete that fits in athletically to what we do, defensively – an athletic, long guy,” Hurley said.
“The way we guard ball screens and we try to use our athletic ability on defense… he fits that. He’s a guy that we hope can be a finisher and finish plays at the offensive end because we have a great group of guards that will put him in position to use his athletic ability. If he can refine his shooting this summer, he’ll be a nice option for us at the forward spot.”
Where does he fit in 2017-18?
The key will be how quickly Preston can be coached up, but there’s no question he has freakish athleticism. He’ll be expected to play with a high motor, contest and block shots, and aid on the glass defensively. Offensively, one word comes to mind for me…
Preston has an opportunity to be a perfectly cast beneficiary if he adjusts, learns how to play in space and syncs his timing with that of his talented guards. When considering the impact he could have, I’m reminded of David Pellom who played three seasons at GW about five/six years back before getting hurt and transferring to Memphis after his injury red-shirt year. Similarly long but not feeble at 6-8, 220, Pellom made a living playing above the rim and operating adeptly along the baseline, playing off his guards who, with all due respect, weren’t half as talented as this URI group. Pellom shot 68 percent from the floor one season thanks to a healthy dose of dunks. If Preston can mirror that mindset and channel it to produce in the same way, he’ll provide Hurley another option to go more traditional and/or flex lineups in different ways.
Rhode Island’s trip to London and Paris – where they’ll have 10 days of practice prior and play a few games across the pond – will provide Hurley and his staff with the ability to tinker and see how a guy like Preston will fit. He’ll need some time, but he’s got some experience. And unlike some available 5th year transfers from lower-tier D1 programs, there’s no question about Preston’s athletic ability translating to the Atlantic 10 level. Most importantly, what matters – for this team with repeat NCAA Tournament aspirations on its mind — is where Preston is in his development come late January 2018, not this summer.