What a difference a week makes. Last Wednesday, the Rams took the floor against Davidson still stinging from two losses to open the New Year. They’d regroup and defeat the Wildcats that night, then rediscover momentum with a huge road win at VCU and tack-on another road “W” at Saint Joe’s two days ago. Now preparing for Saturday’s 12:30pm home match-up with the La Salle Explorers, Rhode Island (11-5, 3-1) is well positioned at roughly the quarter pole of the Atlantic 10 season. Let’s examine a few story lines and then touch upon Saturday’s contest:
Fatts 1K. After scoring just a bucket in the first half against Saint Joe’s, Fatts Russell exploded for 23 second half points, eclipsing the 1,000 point mark in his career in the process. The junior guard is idling at 1,003 as he readies for action Saturday.
During his freshman year, then Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley told me [paraphrasing], “I won’t be surprised if Fatts leads the conference in scoring before he graduates. He might do it twice.” At the close of Wednesday games, Fatts sits atop the Atlantic 10 scoring table, averaging 19.6 per game, a shade more than Dayton star Obi Toppin.
Russell would surely trade any scoring title for another NCAA Tournament appearance or two, but the prolific offense is undeniable.
He’s a true three-way scorer and is attacking the rim even more aggressively this season, generating almost an additional free-throw attempt per game and more than an extra make from the stripe each game given his 73.7% to 86.7% increase year over year. That not only earns the young fella and his team points, but helps drive opponents into foul trouble and free up space on the floor for all to exploit.
He’s also become a more aggressive driver to the cup from both the left and right. Last season he was more patterned as a pull-up threat on left side attacks while preferring to go all the way to the tin with the right. While I’m not looking at Synergy on a daily basis (can’t afford it; have kids to chase around), my eyes tell me Fatts is less predictable in that manner — and a better finisher via both angles of attack.
It all adds up – with the confident jumper and improved shooting percentages from the perimeter – to Fatts being the most lethal scorer in the A-10. Case in point: his 17 points over the final 9:39 against Saint Joe’s. Not many teams have a player who can carry them on his back for scoring stretches . Rhode Island’s 165 pound guard can.
Championship D. The first half against VCU was the most inspired and connected defense I’ve seen Rhode Island play in two years. It’s exactly the elixir a team needs to bring into the hostile Siegel Center – a place where VCU hadn’t lost in 21 previous tries – and emerge with a win. It was championship caliber in every way. Communication, connectivity, flying at shooters, active hands in the passing lanes, contesting at the rim, mid-line help and awareness, and good ole fashioned pride in that side of the ball. Credit David Cox and staff for defining issues and re-setting the Rams on that side of the ball after a down week.
Rhode Island goes 8-players deep. That’s plenty – with proper man management and stable health – to navigate the remainder of the A-10 conference season.
It’s not impossible, but is an ambitious ask, for those same 8 to win four games in four days in Brooklyn. However, if the team packs that Siegel Center defense up and brings it consistently… they’ll win many of their remaining A-10 games. And they’ll be resting with a first-round bye, only needing to play three at most in Brooklyn.
Board-work. Canvass the A-10 leaders in rebounding and you’ll see Cyril Langevine (11.1 per game; 1st) joined by three other forwards in Hasahn French (SLU, 10.2; 3rd), Osun Osunniyi (SBU, 9.8; 4th), and Marcus Santos-Silva (VCU, 9.0; 5th). Second in the league is SLU’s Jordan Goodwin, who is averaging 16.1ppg and 10.5rpg — first team all conference type numbers and the only guard in among the bigs.
Over his last five games, there’s another guard averaging over 9 boards a game, which would place him firmly among this crew of glass crashers — Tyrese Martin. He’s grabbed 11, 12, 8, 7, and 7 rebounds in his last five; 45 total. In conference games only he ranks 6th in the league. So take note: while Martin’s game exudes more smooth than sandpaper, his board-work lately has been nothing short of gritty.
Quick La Salle primer. Coach Ashley Howard, now in his second season, is a Philly guy through and through — from Monsignor Bonner High School to Drexel during his playing days… and most recently from Villanova assistant on over to La Salle.
The Explorers remain very much in the midst of a reboot. The team showed plenty of character last season, battling back from a 0-10 non-conference start to salvage an 8-10 Atlantic 10 season and 10-21 record overall that ended at the hands of URI in the A-10 Tournament second round. This season the Explorers sit at 10-6, 1-3 entering play Saturday, coming off a 76-63 loss to George Mason last weekend.
They’ve been off all week preparing for URI and Howard will have them ready. The Explorers roll out 10 players at least 12 minutes per game, so they’ll be sending fresh bodies in regularly. It’s one of the reasons they’re solid defensively, particularly in guarding the 3 point line. La Salle holds foes under 30 percent shooting from deep, 4th in the league.
Offensively, the Explorers are an average ball club, as Howard continues to assemble program pieces. But they do offer some deep threats. Seniors Saul Phiri and Isiah Deas, along with juniors David Beatty and Scott Spencer can all beat opponents from beyond the arc. Phiri, in particular, is shooting it well of late — knocking down 5 of 7 in the loss to GMU. Rhody will want to “be there on the catch” and chase these guys off the line. The goal is to force the guards to put the ball on the floor and make tough shots off the bounce.
Beyond impacting shot selection, the more you force La Salle to make rapid decisions with the ball, the more likely they are to give you a few easy ones. The Explorers hand the ball over 15.3 times a night, last in the A-10, so crowding them and forcing them to make decisions is often a recipe for success, particularly the way the Rams convert turnovers to points.
Just a few aspects to focus your attention on as you watch Saturday. Join us on B101.5 for the post game show after this one.
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
CATCH THE RAMS VS. DUQUESNE WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 22 AT 7:00PM ET. ON YURVIEW, COX CHANNEL 4 IN RHODE ISLAND.