The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team is atop the Atlantic 10 Conference the latest into the season in team history, but it will have to exorcise some late-game demons to keep itself there.
Tomorrow the Rams host the University of Massachusetts for their second tilt of the season, a squad they have not defeated since Feb. 1, 2012, when they edged the Minutemen in overtime, 81-78, at the Thomas M. Ryan Center.
“It’s a huge game for us,” Rhode Island senior guard T.J. Buchanan said. “We know the importance of this game. We know that we have to come out ready to play. We’re going to have a nice crowd and we really want this. We haven’t beat these guys in a long time and we got that on our mind. We’re going to put some personal pressure on ourselves to go win this game.”
However, Rhode Island has squandered plenty of chances to end their seven-game losing streak against UMass.
The Rams led 53-47 late against the Minutemen on Jan. 17, but allowed them to close the game on a 13-3 run and hold a significant edge in second-chance points, 18-3. Rhode Island had a chance to shock UMass last season at the A-10 Tournament, leading by nine with just under 10 minutes remaining in the second half, but made one shot for the remainder of the game to lose 65-61.
With the exception of an 81-53 drubbing in Amherst in 2013, each contest between the two teams, dating back to 2010, has been decided by 10 points or fewer. Rhode Island has a 2-10 record overall against UMass spanning the past five years and has lost its last seven straight to the Minutemen.
A major force in their recent losses to UMass has been rebounding, a battle the Rams have lost in six consecutive matchups with the Minutemen. Over their last seven contests Rhode Island has been outrebounded by just more than seven on average.
The Rams are 6-1 in the conference when they outrebound their opponent and this matchup will feature two of the A-10’s top seven rebounders, Minutemen center Cady Lalanne and URI sophomore Hassan Martin. Lalanne is tied for fourth with nine boards per game, while Martin falls seventh in the standings with 7.6 per contest.
With Lalanne’s teammate, forward Maxie Esho, not far behind in 12th with 6.6 rebounds per game, Rhode Island could afford senior Gilvydas Biruta stepping up and Earl Watson pulling down a few extra missed shots.
Neither team shoots better than 30.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc, so interior scoring will prove to be a deciding factor as well. Luckily for Rhode Island, they have the two best shooters in the conference anchoring their frontcourt. Martin leads the A-10 with a 63.4 field goal percentage, with Biruta close behind at 59.5 percent. Lalanne and Esho are the best shooters for the Minutemen, successfully converting 52.7 and 51.7 percent of their shots, respectively. Martin’s 72 blocks will not help the Minutemen’s chances inside.
“They’re physical in the front court,” Martin said. “They got Lalanne and Esho’s versatility. We respect them but we’re not going to fear anybody.”
The Rams can use this sharpshooting inside to their advantage, as the UMass scoring defense falls 10th in the conference allowing 69.1 points per game and has one of the worst rebounding defenses as well.
Rhode Island also holds the edge in rebounding margin (4.0 to 1.0), blocks per game (5.8 to 4.6) and turnover margin (+1.2 to -1.7) and numerous other categories. These statistics are what make the consistent losses more puzzling.
Ultimately, it comes down to a question of maturity. The Minutemen have a strong, veteran core with seniors Esho and Lalanne and redshirt junior Derrick Gordon and junior Trey Davis maintaining their backcourt. Rhode Island has matured significantly this season, closing out tighter games with greater frequency, and sports seasoned players like seniors Buchanan and Biruta. The Rams, however, have their future in freshmen and sophomores like Martin, E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell.
“It’s been games where we’ve had leads for probably majorities of games and we’ve been in control, but they make plays at the end of games,” Hurley said. “It’s going to be a high-intensity game and one of these two teams will make the plays down the stretch. They’ve gotten older. Much more mature team. Hopefully the first 23 games really matured us as well.”
Terrell has averaged 12 points over his last 5 games, entering double-digits three times, and Matthews looks nearly back to form despite battling plantar fasciitis. The sophomore guard has averaged 13.8 points per contest in the same span, including 26 points against Richmond on Feb. 8. Martin has been hot as well, sustaining 12.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in their last five. He said that the knee injury that had him questionable/probable against Saint Louis is 100 percent now.
If Rhode Island can pull out a win tomorrow on the backs of their young star players, the Minutemen may find themselves staring back in the mirror at a team starting to look quite a bit like they do.