Roughly half of the non-conference schedule remains ahead for the Rhode Island Rams (4-3), highlighted by a date with West Virginia this weekend and a trip to the Aloha State over winter break. David Cox’s team is performing about as projected, as freshmen grapple with morphing from thinkers to instinctual doers on the court and returnees not named Jeff Dowtin (16.6ppg, 4rpg, 3.9apg) adjust to amplified roles. The Thanksgiving-hangover home loss to Stony Brook is an ugly wart, but road defeats at College of Charleston and Providence weren’t unexpected.
As Rhode Island prepares for an it-doesn’t-feel-like-42 mile bus ride to Mohegan Sun to battle WVU, here’s some perspective for discussion.
Patience is not exactly a trait we’re cultivating in this digital age that offers us immediate access to information and gamifies just about everything imaginable. Bad news for administrations, coaches, and players in an already emotionally-charged sphere where fans root rabidly and want to see results.
Seven games into the David Cox coaching tenure, we’re seeing some bright spots along with expected growing pains. Not everything is peaches and roses, the offensive struggles are well-documented, and visible growth and progress should be expected. But the core challenges entering this season haven’t disappeared simply because the team is now seven games deep into the campaign: first-time head coach, major personnel turnover, unproven freshmen, newly-cast returnees, significant expectations.
Dan Hurley did wonderful things while in Kingston, but with all earned respect… he could’ve done anything other than end up in the South Kingstown police blotter after his first seven games and perceptions would’ve been positive. Hurley’s insatiable commitment to hitting his own internal benchmarks drove him nuts that year anyway, but there were few external expectations after he inherited a team coming off a 7-24 year and in the APR doldrums. Conversely, David Cox inherited one that finished 26-8 and recorded its second NCAA Tournament win in as many years.
That’s the reality and the context in which he’s being analyzed. He knows it’s part and parcel with assuming the job. That said, I’m focused on observing growth across the board and seeing where this collection of guys is in February.
Defense is a bridge.
Cox has been vocal about defense anchoring these Rams. Though it’s early, they’re validating their coach’s talk. As of this morning, Rhode Island ranks 3rd in the Atlantic 10 in scoring defense (63.4ppg, 36th in nation), 4th in field goal percentage defense (.403), 2nd in 3pt field goal percentage defense (.247), 1st in rebounding margin (+6.2, more on this in a moment), and 1st in turnover margin (+3.3). Also of note, the team is fouling less frequently than in years past, ranking closer to the middle of the A10 in fouls per game. Given URI’s challenges on the offensive side of the ball, performing defensively has to be a given every time out. Essentially, the defense must function as a short-term bridge for this team to raise its competition level while Fatts and the freshmen continue to search for role-comfort offensively and the increased production it should bring in time.
A deeper look into the glass.
Rhode Island leads the A10 in rebounding offense at 42.3 per game. Its opponents grab 36.1 per game — hence, the +6.2 margin noted above. To appreciate the early glass proficiency, however, consider that URI is shooting only 39 percent from the floor and 20 percent from three-point range. Yuck.
Sure, this means there’s a greater opportunity for offensive rebounds for the Rams, but remember that roughly 70 percent of all missed shots are rebounded by the defensive team. URI only grabs, at best, 30 percent of its own misses. So if Rhode Island were more effective at shot-making, there would be less defensive board opportunities for its opponents to snare at that 70 percent clip, likely resulting in an even wider rebounding margin disparity in favor of the Rams. Granted I have a liberal arts background, but I think I nailed this one.
Bottom line is the Rams can board it and will throughout the A10 conference season. Sunday offers an elite test of their rebounding mettle. Cyril Langevine, his A10 leading 11.3 boards per game, and the rest of the Rams face your typical, just won the Backyard Brawl by 10, West Virginia side teeming with atypical physicality, length and athleticism. Naturally, WVU leads the Big 12 in rebounding offense (42.8) and is 2nd in rebounding margin (+6.4). It’s as fine a collection of pivot protectors as Rhode Island will body-up all season. Should they hold their own on the glass in this one — now that’ll be telling.
Fatts paint touches.
A helpful development in the Rams 79-63 road win over Holy Cross was Fatts Russell registering an 8-9 day from the free throw line. The nine attempts equaled the amount of attempts Russell generated in his previous three games combined. More importantly, the charity stripe opportunities demonstrated the sophomore guard’s willingness to attack the seams and make generating paint touches a priority. Russell’s diminutive stature and wiry frame are both a blessing and a curse in that he’s nimble enough to exploit gaps but doesn’t always get calls. That shouldn’t deter him though, as finishing strong through contact and allowing his coaches to lobby for foul calls on his behalf is the way to go. Jump-starting his game off the bounce leverages his best asset – blinding quickness – and aids his impact as both a scorer and drive and kick play maker for his teammates, the latter of which he’ll particularly need to be against a long West Virginia team on Sunday.
The Rams next game on YurView is vs. Middle Tennessee on December 30th at 5pm ET. YurView is Cox channels 4 and 1004 in Rhode Island.