What a difference three weeks can make. After gifting a win to Fordham back on February 16th and following it up with a non-competitive showing at VCU, Rhode Island looked like a team on the brink. The damage reached far deeper than just the W/L record: the collective self-esteem of the team and the pulse of the program was on the line.
To the credit of the coaching staff and players, they dug deep — beginning with a spirited showing in a loss to Davidson and chasing that with four straight wins including a signature one at Dayton to finish strong (16-14, 9-9).
The furious rally cemented the fifth straight winning season in conference for URI and the current four-game win streak is a season high. The Rams are armed with tremendous confidence entering the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship in Brooklyn this week.
Rhode Island tips off Thursday against La Salle (10-20, 8-10) in the 8/9 game at noon at Barclays Center. Let’s dive deeper into some driving forces behind the Rams’ recent success, spotlight areas of interest, and discuss an A-10 all conference snub.
Recognition and awareness.
Cyril Langevine, just named to both the Atlantic 10’s 2nd Team All-Conference and All-Defensive Team, is having an outstanding year averaging 14.6ppg and 9.9 rebounds a night. He narrowly missed becoming the first URI player since Kenny Green ’90 to average a double-double during the regular season.
His motor is always on whether his team is up or down 20 — and that’s the highest compliment he can be paid because it speaks to his character as a winner.
But over the last few games, he’s elevated his game in a new and crucial way. His court awareness and recognition of spacing are improving, as keen as they’ve been during his time in Kingston. He’s making the right basketball decisions, valuing the ball and finishing better around the cup as a result.
In the first 26 games, Langevine turned it over 85 times – a 3.26 per game average. In the last four games, he’s coughed it up just three – 0.75 per contest. That’s an immense difference and indicative of his increasing comfort.
It’s also aided by his team playing well around him, as opponents can’t swarm to him with indifference to his teammates as easily. Those teammates are now making shots… and making opponents pay.
How about extra shots, son?
Widening the lens from individual to team, what Langevine is doing by limiting turnovers is giving himself and his team extra shot opportunities.
Empty possessions are a recipe for defeat and if the Rams are to surprise in Brooklyn, they must continue to generate extra possessions. This is done by care-taking, avoiding shooting turnovers (i.e. awful, quick shots that are available at any time), hitting the offensive glass, forcing turnovers, and winning 50/50 balls.
URI has shot the ball better of late, but they’re not suddenly an elite group of snipers. Winning this grouping of extra-possession categories within each game ensures that even when shots don’t fall, they’ll be positioned to compete.
Historically in the Atlantic 10, all-conference voting at the end of the season favors upperclassmen and players on winning teams.
It’s why Cyril Langevine was named to this year’s 2nd team and all five 1st-team selections hailed from programs that finished in the league’s top 4. A tough result but arguable.
However, it also held up even in the face of ole fashioned common sense as Jeff Dowtin (15.3ppg, 3.5rpg, 3.9apg) was not selected for any of the three teams.
Despite Rhode Island’s near season-long offensive struggles and being number one on every opponent’s scouting board (apologies to Cyril but Dowtin is his table-setter), Dowtin managed to increase his shooting percentage from the floor to 48% (robust for a guard).
His numbers were equal to or better than Davidson 1st-teamer Kellan Grady in nearly every offensive and defensive category, but Grady plays for a team that finished 23-8, 14-4. Grady is a fantastic player in his own right and this is not a comparison between he and Dowtin. It is, however, a benchmark for Dowtin unquestionably being one of the top 15 players in the league. He’ll be plenty motivated this week.
Gotta manufacture it.
We discussed this on the post-game radio show after URI’s 94-75 win over UMass on Senior Day and it bears a repeat mention. The 8/9 game in Brooklyn tips at high noon on a Thursday between two teams not expected to extend their respective seasons beyond this tournament.
Businessmen and women haven’t left their offices, and community members and area high school and college students who might be floating over to Barclays usually begin to trickle in about 1:30-2:00pm.
Translation: it feels cavernous in there for some time. What URI must avoid as a unit is a flat-emergence from the tunnel resulting in an early deficit. It’s on the coaching staff and players to generate their own energy early in this one and not provide La Salle any early fuel to draw from.
On the big stage.
Barclays is also sleek venue. Just about seven years old, it’s an NBA arena in every way. Fatts Russell, the reigning A-10 and National Player of the Week, has his mojo back – more important than even his impressive numbers of late because that mojo drives them. And he’s played on big stages. Team anchors Dowtin and Langevine are no strangers to similar environments. Ryan Preston and Christion Thompson have modest familiarity.
Oh look. Fatts Russell was named the CBS Sports College Basketball National Player of the Week. (!!!!) #GoRhody https://t.co/3ka0OZ3Tin
— Rhody Rampage (@RhodyRampage) March 13, 2019
But for Tyrese Martin, Dana Tate, Jermaine Harris and Omar Silverio, cozy Mohegan Sun is their only neutral site reference-point at the collegiate level. And it’s a far cry from Barclays.
The Big 3 of Dowtin, Russell and Langevine have been fantastic of late and will shoulder most of the burden for the Rams. But, make no mistake, Rhody will need timely contributions from its now de facto sophomores if they want to survive and advance in Brooklyn. How they respond will be key.