#34 Rhode Island Preview 2017-18

- Matt Cox

Key Returners: E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell, Stanford Robinson, Jarvis Garrett, Jeff Dowtin, Cyril Langevine
Key Losses: Hassan Martin, Kuran Iverson
Key Newcomers: Daron Russell, Ryan Preston (JUCO)


Postseason Projection: 7 - 10 seed

Outlook: After bouncing back and forth between the right and wrong side of the bubble for the first few months of the season, everything finally came together for the Rams down the stretch - perhaps it was the inexcusable home loss to Fordham on February 15th, in which Rhody tallied just 43 points, that lit a fire under Dan Hurley's bunch.  After that letdown, they proceeded to rattle off 8 straight wins to finish the year, including an impressive 3-game run in the A-10 tournament through St. Bonaventure, Davidson and VCU to punch their ticket to the field of 68. The Rams had no intentions of slowing down in their opening round date with 6th seeded Creighton, thanks to an unlikely hero in true freshman Jeff Dowtin. In a rotation that featured six upperclassmen (two of which were all conference performers) it was Dowtin's 23-point explosion - including a cool 10/10 from the charity stripe - that was the difference in the Rams opening round victory over the Blue Jays...

So for the sake of preventing all diehard URI fans out there from chucking a mobile device or computer screen through a window, we now skip ahead in our coverage – specifically past the final two minutes of the Rams' Round of 32 showdown with Oregon - and look ahead to next season...

In spite of that devastating defeat to the Ducks, Rhody should enter the 2017-18 campaign with a full steam of momentum, fueled by the return of one of the deepest backcourts in the country. The leading man in this cast of characters is the odds-on favorite to win A-10 player of the year, E.C. Matthews. The smooth lefty reminded the nation just how good he is last year after being sidelined for the entire 2015-16 season with a right knee injury. His team leading 14 points a game should see a significant bump this year, especially with his paint partner in crime, Hassan Martin, graduating this offseason. Matthews will be an even bigger target of opposing defensive schemes, which will put the onus on his backcourt mates to become more opportunistic playmakers and scorers. The exit of Martin and Kuran Iverson will force Hurley to implement a more perimeter-oriented offensive attack, which makes the outlook of this year's Ram squad highly leveraged on consistent guard play. Hurley himself corroborated this prognosis in an interview with Jon Rothstein this summer - he openly admitted to watching game film of Villanova to get a better feel for how to establish and execute a "4-out, 1-in" style of offense.

This schematic change means the following questions surrounding the point guard position must be put to bed in order for the Rams to reach their offensive potential: Does Hurley ride with his senior, Jarvis Garrett, as the primary floor general? Or does he officially hand the keys to the young Dowtin, who’s shown he has chops to play big when the stage is brightest? A deeper examination of the Hurley's most frequently used lineups over the past 5 games of last season (per kenpom.com) reveals he may be leaning to featuring Dowtin over the senior Garrett.

A major factor driving this preference was Dowtin's superior decision making with the basketball, despite lacking the experience of the veteran Garrett. While this obviously isn’t a "black or white" decision and the ball handling duties will likely be handled on a "by-committee" basis, optimizing the minutes across all four perimeter spots will be critical to how well the Rams fine tune their new-look, spread-it-out offense. Despite Garrett's struggles last year, his track record indicates he could be a major asset as a floor spacer, especially if he can find his shooting form from two years ago - during the 2015-16 campaign, he set the nets ablaze from downtown, cashing in 52% of his 3s throughout conference play.

The final two perimeter pieces encompass the physicality and defensive-mindedness that Hurley has tried to instill in the Rhode Island program since arriving in 2012. Built like an ox at 6’3 215 pounds Jared Terrell is the last thing opposing ball-handlers want to see standing in-between them and the basket. His defensive statistics aren't sexy, but he's renowned as one of the premier lockdown stoppers in the A-10. Ex-Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson assimilated nicely to Hurley’s pressure man-to-man defensive scheme in his first year in a Ram uniform last season (he posted the A-10's 3rd highest steal rate) and also developed into a valuable two-way player, particularly as a distributor and 3-point shooter - refer to his 38% 3-point shooting clip and 17.1% assist rate, good for 3rd highest on the team. With the shift toward more "small-ball" lineups, the size and athleticism of Robinson and Terrell will make them invaluable pieces this season, particularly on the defensive end where they'll be asked to check bigger forwards and shoulder more of the rebounding burden. 

So herein lies the rub – Rhody's stout defensive unit, which ranked 30th in the country last season (per kenpom.com), was spearheaded by a pair of supreme shot-swatters in Martin and Iverson. A double-whammy now hits Rhody in the face in the form of both Martin and Iverson graduating, leaving a gaping hole in the interior rim protection department. Hurley will need a few reinforcements to grow up fast, particularly Cyril Langevine, who is the only returning big that clocked significant minutes for last year’s squad. And if Hurley is forced to abandon the 4-guard lineup when matched up against elite size down low, he'll likely call upon 6’8 Nicola Akele to assume the 4 spot.

Bottom Line: With Martin and Iverson no longer in the picture, Hurley's coaching chops will be put to the test as he attempts to instill an offense that is relatively foreign to most of the returning core. The Rams were a slightly above average offensive team last season (ranked 5th in the A-10 and 57th nationally, per kenpom.com), which relied heavily on relentless pursuit of the rim from both dribble penetration and offensive glass crashing. With the latter of those two likely to be an unreliable source of consistent offense this season, the athletic and talented backcourt will need to shoot it well from deep to create effective floor spacing in the half-court. While the Rams are still the clear favorite to win the A-10, there are some wrinkles in this year’s roster that Hurley will have to iron out quickly.