Photo courtesy of PhotobyFriday |
The Rhode Island men’s basketball team will pack their bags and head down to Washington D.C for the 2018 Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Tournament, looking to become the first team to repeat as champions since Temple University did in 2009 and 2010. However, after starting 13-0 in conference play, the Rams have lost three of their last five and have limped their way into the tournament, leaving a sense of uncertainty in the air for a team that had breezed their way through A-10 play.
After the confetti fell and the nets were cut down after clinching the A-10 regular season title, Rhode Island will lay claim to the No. 1 seed in the tournament. The last No. 1 seed to win the tournament was St. Louis University in 2013, already giving Rhode Island high expectations. In their first game, the Rams will face the winner of No. 8 Virginia Commonwealth University and No. 9 Dayton, two teams that were mighty goliaths in the A-10 last year but have since entered a slight rebuild following the departures of Archie Miller and Will Wade.
The Flyers have lost to the Rams by a combined margin of 19.5 points this year, while committing 21 and 22 turnovers respectively in both contests. Josh Cunningham, who scored 32 points on 13 of 18 from the field while grabbing 12 rebounds in their first matchup on Jan. 20, was held to five points and committed four turnovers when the Flyers came to the Ryan Center on Feb 23. Kostas Antetokounmpo, the brother of NBA Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, has steadily improved throughout his freshman campaign, averaging 10.5 points per game on 53.5 percent from the field in his last four games. His build and athleticism allows him to stretch the floor in addition to playing physical basketball down low. The Rams match up well with the Flyers, who similarly run a four-guard package throughout the game, and if they shut down Cunningham and force Dayton to turn the ball over it should be a clean season sweep of the Flyers.
In a potential 2017 A-10 championship rematch, VCU comes into the tournament cold, losing six of their last nine after being tied for the second best record in the conference. Coincidentally, one of their wins in the slump was to the Flyers, winning 88-84 in overtime on Feb. 10. Justin Tillman, who is averaging 18.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, presents a matchup nightmare for the Ram’s frontcourt, as his physical style of play can get any big in foul trouble if they bite on his up-fakes or contest a second chance opportunity. Tillman scored 22 points in VCU’s 81-68 loss to the Rams and went a perfect seven of seven from the charity stripe.
However, fans will remember another big man from that game, as it was the breakout game for Cyril Langevine this year, scoring 12 points while grabbing a career high 18 rebounds. Should Rhode Island defend the perimeter, as VCU’s Sean Mobley went a perfect four of four from beyond the arc their last matchup, and avoid their big man getting in foul trouble, Rhode Island will win the battle of the Rams.
Regardless of the opponent Rhode Island will face on Friday, and potentially beyond, Jared Terrell and the Rams will be mentally and physically prepared for what might be thrown their way, and after losing back-to-back games in for the first time all-year in an emotional week, the team will not go down without a fight.
“We worked hard all year so we have the ability to just go out and play,” Terrell said. “Sometimes we think too much. We want to get away from that and just trust our instincts.”
Tuesday also saw the annual Atlantic 10 Conference Awards be released to the general public. For Rhode Island, the big honor went to Dan Hurley, who took home the Coach of the Year Award, Rhode Island’s first coach to take home the honor since Jim Baron did in 2008-2009. Hurley, in his sixth season at the helm for the Rams and his eighth total at the collegiate level, gave credit to the players and his coaching staff who were able to make it all happen.
“[The award] should be named the ‘You Recruited the Right Players’ award instead of Coach of the Year. The ‘You’ve Got a Great Staff’ award,” Hurley said. “I’ve been blessed with both since I’ve been here… and that’s any coach’s beneficiary for both of those things, especially here with this group.”
Other notable accolades for the Rams included an All-Conference First Team selection for Terrell, the first since Jimmy Baron in 2008-2009, All-Conference Third Team selection for E.C Matthews, All-Defensive Team selection for Stanford Robinson and an All-Academic Team selection for Jeff Dowtin.
Rhode Island’s first game will be on Friday at 12 p.m.. After a rough couple of weeks to end the season, the Rams will look to put behind their struggles and focus on the challenge ahead and a chance at their first ever consecutive A10 Tournament Championships.