KINGSTON, RI — The Rhode Island Rams jumped into the “Last Four In” of ESPN resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s field this week, and for good reason. They came into Friday having won seven in a row, including a win on the road against VCU and at home against Duquesne. Their offense has been on a roll, averaging a hair over 78 points per game in their last three games, and the second-leading scorer in the A-10, Fatts Russell, has only scored under 10 points once this season.
When the Rams are in front of their home crowd, everything gets amplified. Rhode Island’s lone loss at the Ryan Center came against Richmond on Jan. 5 and the Rams haven’t lost since.
Against a tough Duquesne defense last week, Russell and Jeff Dowtin combined for 40 points. They combined for 40 again on the road against St. Bonaventure, and they combined for 47 on Friday night against VCU on their way to an 87-75 victory.
The sweep over the (other) Rams of VCU pushes them comfortably into second place in the A-10 and boosts their resume for March Madness. Although there is no doubt Russell is the catalyst for Rhode Island, its scoring and momentum can come from anyone on the court. Whether it’s a three-pointer for Dowtin or Tyrese Martin, or a big bucket down low from Antwan Walker, the Rams know when they need to push the accelerator.
The Rams found themselves up by 22 at the half against VCU and extended their lead to 29 early in the second half. But VCU came clawing back, seemingly stunning Russell and company. URI’s defense allowed a 13-0 run and seemed completely lost for the first time in a while. However, leadership from big man Cyril Langevine and Russell helped the Rams find their feet and hold on for a double-digit victory.
Forget about those 10 minutes in the second half, and there is no doubt this team could give Dayton a run for its money. Although Rhode Island’s defense has certainly had some lapses this season, a solid 40-minute performance could stifle Dayton’s high-flying offense and allow Russell to take over. Both games against the Flyers will have big implications in the A-10 standings, and the A-10’s chances of maximizing its tournament bids.
Richmond has been the only team to hold Russell under 10 points this season, and it was a bad showing. He went 1-12 from the field and just could not get into a rhythm the whole night as the Spiders claimed a 69-61 victory and gave the Rams their only conference loss of the season. Russell had his season low for minutes and seemed stumped by the Spiders’ defense.
Most opposing defenses try to throw some variety of double-teams and extra help at Russell, but it simply doesn’t matter. His crafty dribbling and evasive maneuvers can get him out of almost any double-team. It also doesn’t help that he can pass the ball with pinpoint accuracy and precision. He’s averaging just under five assists per game and makes them look dang good when he dishes the ball.
His ability to create plays for his teammates and himself is a unique ability that few point-guards possess in college basketball. He’s more than comfortable driving to the hoop and showing off his nifty variety of layups, but happily dishes the ball out to the wing for an open three-point shot. Opposing defenses shouldn’t scout to outright eliminate Russell from the game, because you simply cannot. The best you can hope for is to limit his presence, throw double-teams at him as much as you can, and hopefully hold him to 15 points.
The Rams have two softballs — UMass at home on Tuesday and George Washington on the road next Saturday — before squaring up against Dayton for a huge conference clash. If the Rams are unable to pull out the victory in Dayton, they will certainly be ready for the rematch on their home court. Russell and the Rams have heard the pleas for a three- or four-bid Atlantic 10 this year, and they’re more than ready to take on the challenge.