Insider Breakdown: Rams Remain Perfect in A-10, Move to No. 22 in AP poll

Rhode Island (17-3, 9-0), No. 22 AP, remained perfect in the Atlantic 10 after a furious comeback and Stanford Robinson buzzer-beater over Duquesne (14-8, 5-4) on Saturday. For anyone living under a rock who missed it, here’s another look:

Let’s examine this one and dig deeper with half of the Atlantic 10 conference season complete.

Let’s deconstruct the last play beyond what everyone saw and what many people saw. Everyone saw Stanford Robinson make a helluva shot. Many people saw Jeff Dowtin deliver a shooter’s pocket pass to allow Robinson to catch-and-shoot in rhythm.

But rewind the play further and examine. Rhode Island forward Cyril Langevine comes out to set a high ball screen for Dowtin. Duquesne does an excellent job in initial ball screen defense, as big man Chas Brown blitzes it and allows teammate Rene Castro-Cannedy to get over the top and push Dowtin away from the bucket to his left. Langevine wisely dives and Brown, after the hard show, retreats to mark Langevine.

At this split second, Dowtin takes full advantage. His eyes remain affixed to the action in front of him and – like a quarterback looks off a safety – he uses a hesitation dribble and glances to his right. This prompts Castro-Cannedy to lunge forward and attempt a steal, leading with his right arm and leg. Dowtin instinctively uses an inside-out dribble to take the left edge. Now Dowtin has a step on his man, and Duquesne’s Eric Williams Jr. is forced to show help and take one step towards Dowtin. Stanford Robinson, stationed in the short-corner the entire play, realizes this and promotes spacing by fanning to the corner — where the rest becomes Ryan Center history.

No Epic Comeback without E.C. 

There were many unsung heroes in this game, but let’s make one thing clear. Rhode Island does not threaten a comeback from 15 down with 16 to play, much less win, without E.C. Matthews. Jared Terrell is a front-runner for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year right now, but this Rams team cares most about winning and the reality is they’re 13-0 in games with a healthy Matthews (he was injured late in a one possession game at Nevada). Matthews shook off two air-balls in the first half and just 2-6 shooting to go 5-8 and 2-4 from deep in the second half en route to a game-high 20 points in carrying the Rams offensively.

Cyril’s Minutes

6-foot-8 sophomore forward Cyril Langevine went 1-1 from the floor and contributed three rebounds, two blocks and an assist and steal in 24 minutes of action. That might not jump from the box score, which is exactly why numbers rarely provide a complete picture. Langevine was another key to the Rams run and closure of the 15-point gap in the second half, contributing active hands and feet defensively along with rim protection and toughness in the paint. His ability to hedge in the high ball screen game and play 94′ feet allowed Rhode Island to apply consistent pressure up-and-down the floor and force the pace of the game. This led to turnovers, along with shorter and therefore more possessions available to Rhode Island to dig out from the deficit. His offensive game remains under construction, but defensively he provides Hurley with an extra gear needed to match specific personnel sets.

Area for Improvement

Dan Hurley remarked after the win that it was a helpful scenario for a coach. The team emerges victorious in a game where it played less than its best, but there’s fuel for the week of practice. And believe me, Hurley has plenty of it. For 25 minutes – minimally – Rhode Island uncharacteristically played right into the Dukes hands by jacking up several contested two-point attempts. That’s an ideal situation for a defense and a nightmare one for an offense, a main reason why URI mustered just 23 points at the half and Duquesne nearly won despite committing 19 turnovers.

Rhode Island guards were too content to pound the ball into the deck in seeking to isolate and drive their defenders from out high or the wings. There’s no issue with attacking the rim and generating paint touches. But indecisive, over-dribbling stagnates the offensive flow, frustrates spacing, and allows help defenders to either slide in, or show hands in the gaps. This leads to taking “tough twos” instead of quality shots. This scene repeated itself for long stretches in the first half.

Rather than moving the ball – and defense – and creating seams to then exploit via the dribble drive, Rhode Island hoisted tough twos leading to a) misses, b) less opportunity for offensive boards, and c) run-outs by Duquesne. It’s uncharacteristic of the crisp and unselfish sharing normally flexed by the Rams, so reactivating that core behavior of this team will be a practice point of emphasis with games at UMass (10-12, 3-6) and Friday night at VCU (14-8, 6-3).

One Final Point

UMass is 9-3 at home and VCU 10-3. No road game is easy. Conference up year, conference down year… doesn’t matter. Particularly when there’s a number to the left of your program name.