Insider Breakdown: OK Takeaways and the Duke Dilemma

Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard

For the second straight season, Dan Hurley’s Rhode Island Rams are advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. A year ago, it was a decisive victory over Creighton. Yesterday, an overtime thriller which put away talented Trae Young and the Oklahoma Sooners, 83-78.

Let’s dig deeper into the Rams first round (thank god we don’t call it the second round anymore) victory:

Shot attempts.

The casual fan will look at the box score and conclude that Trae Young generally had his way, shooting 9-18 from the field for 28 points. The casual fan will be dead wrong. Four of Young’s field goal attempts (1-4) came in overtime. And while 8-14 is unquestionably a solid percentage, the fact that Young only attempted 14 shots in regulation is the story within the story. In fact, after a 4 for 4 first half, the freshman was blanketed by the complementary combination of Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell and endured second half stretch of 16 game minutes without a made field goal. Rhode Island forced the dynamic youngster into rushed shots late and six turnovers overall. Beyond that, URI dared the OU supporting cast to beat them. They couldn’t.

Experience personified.

When Stanford Robinson’s athletic follow-up attempt at the regulation buzzer rimmed out, the camera panned to Cyril Langevine peeling a laughing Robinson off the floor. That’s the difference between veteran experience and young teams. There would be no shoulder-slumping, carryover letdown into overtime. In fact, within two seconds, Robinson and his teammates wiped the slate and, as Dan Hurley and staff drill at practice, “next play.”

It reminded me of the final game in the Jeter “flip” series where the Yanks were clinging to a one-run lead in the 9th inning. Yanks second basemen Luis Sojo got tangled in his own feet and fell trying to field a routine ground ball. The tying run was aboard for the A’s. But I vividly remember Sojo and his veteran teammates laughing it off. They’d record the final three outs and move on to the ALCS.

That’s the benefit of rote experience in high leverage situations like this one. These Rams never flinched.

Rhode Island Rams 2018 NCAA Tournament
Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard

Elbert Charles.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know E.C. Matthews over the past five years. He’s not a good kid, he’s a great kid. There have been plenty of character-challenging moments for him, from injuries and rehabs to game ending moments that didn’t go his, or the Rams, way — as recently as five days ago. The accumulation of those moments – and overcoming them – make his overtime takeover and dagger all the more meaningful. He’s a young man who has selflessly accepted a refined role, if not a reduced one at times. And to make that shot, on that stage, against Trae Young and before a national audience… well, that speaks for itself.

Rewarding bold moves.

Midway through the overtime, former Maine Coach Bob Walsh texted my game watching counterpart Dan Yorke that he was impressed with Hurley’s bold second-half substitution patterns. He remarked that many coaches simply roll five guys out at the start of the overtime, for instance, and live or die. He’s absolutely right. Whether it was Hurley riding Russell’s hot hand down the stretch or placing trust in Cyril Langevine in the extra frame, the coach confidently pushed the right buttons. The sophomore forward rewarded Hurley with a 14 point, 10 rebound double-double… and 4-4 shooting from the charity stripe in the final 1:03 of overtime.

Here we go… again.

Coach K and the second-seed Duke Blue Devils are waiting. Many of these same Rams played Duke (though without many of its new crop of one-and-done players) a year ago at Mohegan Sun, falling 75-65. So they won’t be intimidated by the name on the front of the opposing jerseys.

That said, the Rams are about to face the longest, toughest zone they’ve seen all year that is home to 6-11 Marvin Bagley III and 6-10 Wendell Carter Jr. among others. Duke’s in-season pivot to playing primarily zone is a major reason for their defensive improvement. The Blue Devils can be susceptible in transition, so beating them down the floor is helpful and Rhode Island will look to push when able (assuming they can clear defensive caroms). If and once the Duke zone establishes its roots, it’s all about fundamental basketball: pass fakes, moving the defense with eyes, making the extra pass, exploiting the soft spot at the high post and, above all else, knocking down shots. Rhode Island shot 11-28 (39.3%) in the victory over OU. They’ll need to knock down no less than that many at that same percentage or above on Saturday.

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