Rhode Island (20-9, 12-5) dropped its third game in the last four contests on Wednesday night to national-championship caliber Dayton — and its fourth in six tries. The only Rams wins since February 8th are over Saint Joseph’s and Fordham, two teams with a combined 4-30 Atlantic 10 Conference record. After Wednesday’s defeat, URI head coach David Cox talked about how challenging times present two choices – fight or fold – and assured all that this Rams group will continue to fight.
One regular season game remains before Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship play begins next week at Barclays Arena in Brooklyn. The Rams still control their own destiny and are positioned for a double-bye into the quarterfinal round on Friday as one of the conference’s top four seeds. Yet they’re in need of a rapid reboot to rediscover the recipe (or something close) that helped them win 10 straight games just a short time ago.
First, a road trip to Amherst awaits — along with an improving UMass team eager to atone for a loss just a shade over a month ago in Kingston. It’s back to basics time for Rhode Island — and here are a few fundamental areas where the Rams can simplify to see success:
Share it. Despite having two veteran guards in the top 12 in the Atlantic 10 in assists (Fatts Russell 4th at 4.6 per game | Jeff Dowtin 12th at 3.2), the team ranks just 269 in the country at 12.5 a night. In the recent three losses – Davidson, Saint Louis, and Dayton – URI has combined for just 29 assists or 9.6 per game.
That has to change immediately. That’s not to suggest that everyone on the roster is instantaneously going to morph into Lebron James and average 10.7 helpers per game — but the mindfulness and willingness to share it needs to return fast. David Cox has talked about playing for each other, not simply with each other, at various points this season. The Rams need a collective jolt of the “for each other” mentality because it will buoy them all. However Cox and staff choose to re-infuse that approach and hold players accountable for it through on court tactics and management is, of course, in their purview. But lately there are periods of isolation and pounding it into the deck while movement stalls, the defense gets in the gaps, the help fortifies, and the seams dry up. Resetting the mindset to serving teammates results in everyone getting better shots.
See it through. Rhody’s last four opponents have shot 43.6%, 45%, 52.5% and 46.8% from the floor. That’s lifted the Rams field goal percentage defense up to 41.9% overall, still steady but climbing. Cyril Langevine does a tremendous job as the only experienced anchor on the interior, but he can only hold the pocket for so long. That’s why it’s incumbent upon Rhode Island guards to create and sustain disruption out high and frustrate opponents ability to get into sets. That’s a challenge with an eight-man roster in early March, but everyone is banged up and taxed this time of year. Beyond the guards, guys must maintain focus and awareness through the shot-clock, particularly in marking opponents and protecting the defensive glass after the first shot opportunity.
Smart. I said it on the post-game show Wednesday and it bears repeating. What makes No. 3 Dayton a national championship contender isn’t just that the Flyers are talented. Dozens of teams are talented. What elevates UD is their smarts. That’s one of the most intelligent basketball teams, particularly offensively, we’ll see in the college ranks. They exploit opponent weaknesses surgically and either generate or preserve several points and possessions per game because of smart decisions they make to either “do X” or “avoid doing Y” in a given moment. Every roster is different and offers a mixture of players, styles, personalities and variables. But we know Rhode Island has one of the most cerebral players around in Dowtin and the capacity in others to follow his lead. Getting right and making a run can be achieved with incremental decision-making gains across the lineup. One or two extra “avoid the temptation and stay in your own lane” decisions by each guy, per game, will put points and opportunities back on the board for the Rams, or take them away from opponents.
Seniors. On Wednesday evening, the Rhode Island community honored senior players Eric Dadika, Jordan Green, Dowtin and Langevine. The latter two have been among the most successful to ever represent the program. And their time isn’t done yet. They are filled with urgency and are the type of duo that can galvanize a group to lay it all on the line for them. That time has come. Time to fight.
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