URI Rams Throttle La Salle, VCU Up Next

Jeff Dowtin, Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard

You don’t want to go to war with the Rams.

That’s VCU’s slogan, but might as well apply to both teams heading into tomorrow’s quarterfinal match up at Barclays Center.

VCU, the top seed in this week’s A-10 Tournament, is 25-6 overall and 16-2 in league play, winners of 12 straight. Their last defeat was to Rhode Island back in January at the Ryan Center. Rhode Island (17-14, 10-9*) is also white-hot, winners of five straight by an average of 13.6 per game, including Thursday’s 76-57 second-round dismantling of La Salle (10-21) in a game that played less competitively than the final score.

The Rams jumped all over the Explorers from the opening tip and never looked back after a three-point play by Jeff Dowtin midway through the first half. The lead ballooned to 30 points in the second stanza and it was all over but the shouting. But recaps are for copycats – and you’ll read those elsewhere. Lets dig into some story-lines and take a look ahead to tomorrow’s tilt.

Getting downhill.

Rhode Island’s back court of Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell combined for 31 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds and, most importantly, just two turnovers in 64 minutes of action. Leveraging ball screens, solid decision-making in using and refusing them, and their ever-improving communication with Cyril Langevine and Jermaine Harris as primary pick and roll partners, Dowtin and Russell were committed to getting downhill off the dribble, decisively.

Fatts Russell, Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard

When they’re able to take the edge as they consistently did in this one, they dictate the action. That’s where you want to be as an offense. The defense must bring help, leave gaps, and is placed in a reactive position. Rolling big men become involved, the ball moves, long rebounds and run-outs to the opponent are limited, and the perimeter looks Rhode Island sees are cleaner.

Role reversal.

On March 9th, 2018, top seed Rhode Island (23-6, 15-3) met No. 8 seed (18-14, 9-9) in the 12 p.m. quarterfinal game on Friday at the Verizon Center in D.C.

Rhode Island was able to create late space and defeat the Southern Rams 76-67 on their way to a second straight appearance in the A-10 Championship game and NCAA Tournament. Now 371 days later, the two will meet again with the Kingston Rams now the eighth seed and VCU the hunted. Mike Rhoades’ team will be looking to atone for getting bounced in the quarters by URI a year ago, but David Cox’s team has plenty of motivation, not the least of which is the behind-the-woodshed ripping they suffered during the nadir point of their season against VCU a few weeks back.

Several role players for VCU have leveled-up in production and flank the “Marcus-squared tandem.” That would be newcomer and 1st team all A-10 producer Marcus Evans (14.2ppg, 3.1rpg, 3.3apg) along with Marcus Santos-Silva (9.5ppg, 7.0rpg, 59.9%FG), who barely played a year ago and could/should have been named the league’s Most Improved Player this season.

It’s a talented bunch, but not one that is drenched in tournament-experienced seniors, like URI a year ago. That means this VCU crew is under the spotlight to show championship pedigree. Rhode Island hopes to jump out early and elevate the heat that comes with being spotlighted.

Jermaine Harris, Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard

Expect some zone.

Here’s the understatement of the year. Cyril Langevine is vitally important to the Rams. Against La Salle, he poured in 25 points and snared 12 rebounds in a dominant effort. The junior forward was 9-10 from the field and an acceptable 7-10 from the charity stripe.

In the first half, he picked up a quick-wick technical foul for allegedly taunting an opponent after a made bucket. With the game still within three or four possessions, David Cox wisely went to a zone over the next few moments to protect Langevine from picking up a second foul.

Expect some zone tomorrow.

For one, it saves legs and URI will expend energy in dealing with VCU pressure. Rhody isn’t a deep team, made thinner by Dana Tate grinding through a toe injury, and using zone as currency to preserve extra fit-bit steps makes sense.

Second, VCU only shoots .306 from 3PT range, 13th in the league during the regular season. With it being their first game in this NBA arena, they’ll need some time to adjust to shooting site lines where depth perception can be tricky. Expect Rhode Island to test the waters and force them to make a few jump-shots. VCU, for its part, will want to force TOs, push pace, run, and attack in transition to generate “easy” buckets.

Finally, David Cox has three big men (Langevine, Harris, and Ryan Preston) to primarily deploy against Santos-Silva and company. Preston’s emergence and ability to be physical and give some fouls is a helpful development. But Cox will want to be judicious and certainly protective of Langevine — and the zone offers him a safe harbor tactic.

See you tomorrow post-game on 920 WHJJ and connect with me on Twitter @CDiSano44.

URI takes on VCU Friday at noon. The game can be seen on NBCSN.