Six games into the season, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team has shown flashes of their potential to become an NCAA tournament-caliber squad.
They’ve also showed that it might take longer than thought.
Last week, they dropped two out of three at the Orlando Classic Tournament to No. 11 University of Kansas and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Out of the gates against Kansas, Rhode Island could not stop the Jayhawks on offense. Â Kansas’ star forward Perry Ellis punished the Rams underneath, recording 11 points and grabbing five rebounds in the first half. Â Meanwhile, the only player for the Rams to have more than four points at the half was sophomore E.C. Matthews who had 11, but was shot just 3-for-11.
In the second half, Rhode Island actually outscored Kansas and it was senior Gilvydas Biruta who led them. Â He had 12 points and five rebounds, three of them offensive. Â He also bothered Ellis, who didn’t grab a rebound for the rest of the game. Kansas’ first-half advantage, though, was too much to overcome and Rhode Island couldn’t get it to a single-digit deficit.
In the next round of the tournament, Rhode Island was able to pick up a win against Santa Clara University. Â The Rams led by eight at half as Matthews and Terrell had 11 and 10 points, respectively. Â Rhode Island blew open the game in the second half as they forced Santa Clara into low-percentage shots and overpowered them in the paint.
In the three-point loss to Georgia Tech, the better team lost. Â Georgia Tech went on a 17-2 run in the first half, forcing 13 Rhode Island turnovers before the intermission. In the second half, Rhode Island looked like a different team. Â Sophomore Hassan Martin, who was 0-for-1 in the first half, didn’t miss a shot in the second and finished with 10 points and five rebounds.
In the first six games, Matthews has picked up exactly where he left off last year. Â He’s averaging 17.5 points and four rebounds per game for the Rams and is shooting 45 percent. Â He put up two 20-point games against top-25 teams in the country, including 26 points and 10 rebounds in their win against No. 21 Nebraska.
Matthews is doing this while being the opposing team’s focal point of defense. Â Every time he touches the ball, he has the opponent’s best wing defender draped on him, along with oftentimes a double team after screens. Â Last year his points came easier as he was the second option behind Rhode Island’s leading scorer, Xavier Munford. Â Matthews has dealt with this well so far, but it’s taken him until the second half to really find a hole in the defense. Â Against Nebraska and Kansas, he shot a combined 5-for-18 in the first half. Â This was, of course, against two of the best defensive guards in the country in the Cornhuskers’ Terran Petteway and the Jayhawks’ Wayne Selden Jr.
With the opposing team’s defense consuming Matthews, Rhode Island freshman Jared Terrell has been able to find open shots along the wing. Â So far the talented freshman, who was ranked no. 79 in the nation for his class last year by ESPN, looks like, well, a talented freshman. Â Early in the season, he’s had some big moments, like his back-to-back 3-pointers in overtime to open up their lead against Nebraska. Â However, he hasn’t quite found his shot yet and has yet to jell with the offense.
It’s going to take a while for Terrell. Â Last year, Matthews was in a similar position when he was the second scoring option and needed to learn how to defend to stay in the game. Â Matthews shot just 36 percent in the first 12 games last year as a freshman and he still went on to win the Atlantic 10 Co-Rookie of the Year. Â Terrell is scoring 10.5 points and shooting just 34 percent. His shot will come, hopefully around the time when conference games begin.
With Terrell and Matthews on the wing, Rhode Island’s guards won’t be the reason the team can’t make an NCAA tournament push. Â It’s the team’s frontcourt. Â The Rams already miss the presence of 6-foot-10 Jordan Hare, who left the team last month for personal reasons after practicing with them all summer.
Without him Rhode Island is left with four forwards, all of them at the 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 mark. Â They have been the key to winning games so far this year, though. Â The only game in which Rhode Island has been out rebounded by a larger margin this year was against Kansas, 40-31. Â In their contest versus Georgia Tech rebounding was nearly even with a 30-29 edge for the Yellow Jackets. In their other four games, the Rams dominated the boards with a combined 166-105 advantage.
The key for the rest of the way for Rhode Island will be their frontcourt. Â Matthews will give them his 15 to 20 points and Terrell has the potential to match that by the time conference play comes around. Â For the Rams to make a push, it depends on their big men to grab rebounds and make a presence in the paint.