As conference play has begun in the Atlantic 10, the Rhode Island Rams remain the overwhelming favorite to repeat as conference champions, primarily due to their star-studded backcourt. Entering the 2017-18 season, Rhode Island returned a solid core of five NCAA-Tournament-tested guards from a 25-10 team that reached the big dance for the first time in nearly two decades.
Despite the luxury of having what CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein calls perhaps the best backcourt in the nation, there are challenges when a team is stacked at the perimeter. For instance, head coach Dan Hurley has the unenviable task of finding adequate minutes for his gifted quintet. And now, with the emergence of freshman phenom Daron “Fatts” Russell — a pint sized point guard with a Philly Swagger — Hurley’s herculean task has become even harder. Russell solidified his position in the already crowded guard rotation after exploding for 24 points against Brown earlier this season.
His coming-out performance was no fluke. In his next game, Russell led Rhode Island past in-state rival Providence, 75-68, in a nationally televised game to end the Friars’ seven-game winning streak against the Rams. His performance was the difference-maker.
Russell scored 20 points that night in only 24 minutes and pulled down five rebounds. But most importantly, when Russell entered the game in the first half, he changed the complexion of a tight game. His 14 first-half points gave the Rams breathing room as well as a double-digit lead entering halftime.
After the game, Providence head coach Ed Cooley had high praise for Rhode Island’s prized recruit.
“I think he is going to be a very good player for them,” he said. “He did a hell of a job today. URI should be happy they got him.”
Russell’s surprisingly strong performance against the backdrop of a sold-out and raucous Ryan Center crowd was not only a pleasant surprise for URI, but an extension of his storied high school career at Philadelphia powerhouse Inhotep Charter School.
Russell dominated the highly competitive Philadelphia high school basketball scene — a breeding ground for NBA greats like Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain. At Inhotep, Russell led his team to three tournament championships, including the Pennsylvania state title. Remarkably, he was named the MVP in all three tournaments. Russell capped his prolific Inhotep career as the school’s all-time leader in scoring, assists and steals.
Now, in a down-year for the Atlantic 10, how can conference teams contain Russell’s blinding speed, acrobatic moves, and lights-out three-point shooting?
George Mason was the first A-10 team to have a look at him. Despite being held scoreless, Russell provided a glimpse of what to expect in the future on one play when he whizzed past four defenders and unselfishly kicked the ball out to Jarred Terrell for an open three.
George Mason coach Dave Paulsen was already familiar with the point guard’s game since he was in the hunt for him on the recruiting trail last year.
“He is a terrific player,” Paulsen said. “I saw him at the Donofrio AAU Classic tournament competing against the best players in the Philly and South Jersey area. Fatts’ team won the championship and he was named the MVP.”
But Russell has never received his due respect from the basketball recruiting services despite winning everything in high school against elite competition. ESPN and Rivals each only gave him a three-star rating.
“After all the high school accolades Russell achieved, there is no way you can tell me he wasn’t one of the top 150 high school players in the nation,” said URI associate head coach David Cox, who recruited Russell. “But he thrives in this environment and has developed much faster than we anticipated.”
Daniel Gallen, who covers the Philadelphia high school basketball beat, has a theory why Russell was overlooked by high school basketball scouts and upper echelon college basketball programs.
“On the surface, it appears that Russell was underrated as a high school player because of his size. This probably scared off the Power 5 programs,” said Gallen, a reporter for PennLive. “He didn’t fit the template many of these schools look for when they’re recruiting prospects.”
Now, some experts believe it’s just a matter of time before Russell becomes a starter for the Rams. One of those believers is Russell himself, who proclaimed that he was already the best player on the team at the very first practice. His comment prompted E.C. Matthews to affectionately call him “delusional.”
Maybe not for long.