Atlantic 10 Whip Around: Rams fast out of the gates

The Atlantic 10 Conference regular season is underway for the preseason favorite Rhode Island Rams. Dan Hurley’s team received 27 of 28 possible first place votes in October, and after a successful 8-3 non-conference campaign, Rhode Island tacked on two conference wins this week to improve to 10-3, 2-0. We’ll drill down on some players and developments in Kingston but, first, let’s canvass a few early league story lines.

URI Rams basketball

Atlantic 10 water cooler knowledge. Three bullet-points you need to know to impress your office buds:

  • Duquesne (yes, Duquesne) and Rhode Island are the only two undefeated squads in conference play after two games. Keith Dambrot – Lebron’s high school coach and a tremendous program leader at Akron for many years – now patrols the sidelines in Pittsburgh. He can coach folks. And while Duquesne’s non-conference schedule was light as it should’ve been for a team building confidence, they’re going to dig in and make you beat them under Dambrot. No more turnstiles at Duquesne (11-4); these guys defend. If it sounds familiar it should. A similar defense-first approach to rebuilding began in Kingston in 2013.
  • The rest of the league is searching. For what, I’m not quite sure. In over a decade of being glued to these teams, I don’t recall any potential level of interchangeability like this. The bottom of the league is better, but like a restrictor-plate NASCAR race, there’s a huge swath of teams in the middle… seemingly jammed and trying to separate. St. Bonaventure figures as the number two (despite a slip up at Dayton Wednesday), but after that don’t let any “expert” tell you he/she knows who number three is. Because they don’t.
  • Watch La Salle. The Explorers showed well in Kingston even without 6-7 all-conference forward B.J. Johnson (21.8ppg, 9rpg)— who’s still nursing an ankle injury. Doc Giannini’s teams always guard… and the blend of seasoned perimeter players and length that they possess bode well for them as they continue on in conference play. Pookie Powell is one of the more underrated guards regionally, Isaiah Deas is talented and confident, and their young bigs will continue getting better.

With some kindling to stoke your league fire, let’s shift to the Rams and early observations through two conference contests:

Depth and Disruption.

There will be games – like the George Mason tilt – where Rhode Island simply overwhelms its opponent with back court depth and the ability to come at you in waves both in generating turnovers and in scoring the basketball. The two D’s above will remain calling cards for this team throughout the year. Expect some statistics – like field goal percentage defense – to improve for Rhode Island because, frankly, they won’t be playing the caliber of opponent game in and game out that they faced in their non-conference portion of the schedule. That said, the Rams thrive off of live ball turnovers and must generate them to beat better opponents. Hurley’s team is second in the conference in steals per game (8.3) and first in turnover margin at +5.8. This second stat is the delta between how you care for the ball versus the havoc you exact upon your opponent. Against La Salle, the Rams generated 30 points off turnovers, allowing them to overcome a lackluster offensive performance where they tallied an uncharacteristic seven assists. With continued development from their forwards the next step is firming up the middle defensively. That will help solidify their half court defense when they’re unable to force opponents into miscues.

Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard

A word (or a few) about Andre Berry.

The work Andre Berry (8.5ppg, 3.8rpg, 58.5% FG) has logged over his time in Kingston to develop into a valued contributor is notable. From the weight room to cardio conditioning he’s transformed his body and role. And that role is a vital one for the 2017-18 Rams, as he offers the only true back-to-the-basket option. There have been better finishers (See Martin, Hassan) at URI, but in terms of polish and touch around the rim, only Kahiem Seawright and Antonio Reynolds-Dean come to mind as showcasing an equivalent feel on the interior as so-called “angle-scorers.”

On the hunt.

As of January 4th, the Rams are sandwiched at No. 22 in the RPI between Kansas and Arizona at 21 and 23, respectively. Not a terrible place to be. Their non-conference strength of schedule ranked eighth in the country and they own wins over No. 21 Seton Hall and several other tournament hopefuls. But they’re still searching for true road win numero uno, with losses at Nevada and Alabama so far this season. They’ll get nine chances in conference play, beginning at GW where Dan Hurley has yet claim a victory. On the road in conference play, 7-2 (or 6-3 minimally) would position the program well for postseason play, given its dominance (9-0 to date) at the Ryan Center.