It’s never a walk in the park in the Siegel Center.
The home of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams is a constant force to go up against as an opposing team. Sell outs are the norm, and a frenzied crowd almost always urges on an even more chaotic brand of basketball.
VCU loves to create havoc for opposing ball handlers. It’s a given that they’ll press, constantly. It’s also a given that if opponents start to get lazy with passes, or sloppy while handling the ball, the Rams will turn you over again, and again, and again for easy opportunities on the break. Seven of VCU’s nine regular rotation players have double digit steals on the season to this point, with De’Riante Jenkins leading the team with 30.
So where does all of that leave the Rhode Island Rams as they head into Richmond, Virginia sitting at 1-1 in the Atlantic 10? Well, sometimes you have to look backwards, to move forwards.
Specifically take it back to 2019, when on February 19th Rhody slept walked through a 76-42 drubbing on the road. URI shot just north of 30 percent from the field, just south of 20 percent from three, and turned the ball over an eye opening 20 times. The lack of offense for Rhode Island spilled over to their defensive intensity, as they allowed VCU to shoot 50 percent from the field, and just over 40 percent from deep. On their 31 made baskets that evening in February, VCU had assists on 23 of them.
That sort of effort is not indicative of the usual effort we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from those donned in Keaney Blue. Rhody’s defense has been their calling card for most of the past decade, highlighted by strong perimeter play. Most recently, URI shut down an opposing backcourt of reigning A-10 player of the year Jon Axel Gudmundsson and perennial bucket getter Kellan Grady into shooting just 9-30 for a combined 22 points in an 11-point loss to the Rams on Wednesday night.
But back to the matchup at hand. I’d be remiss to mention that Rhody did in fact have a positive record last season against the A-10 regular season champions. URI defended the Ryan Center well last January, eeking past VCU 71-65, and who could forget the circus three point shot Jeff Dowtin hit down the stretch to lift Rhody past VCU in the conference tournament.
So what was the biggest difference between the close wins and the blowout loss? The turnover battle.
When Rhody can squeeze the orange, especially against a team like VCU who relies heavily on their transition offense to fill it up, every sign points towards them winning. In URI’s two wins against VCU last season, they had a combined 26 turnovers, compared to 20 alone in the one blowout loss. In those two wins for Rhode Island, they had a combined 39 points off turnovers alone, while that same number for VCU in their losing effort was a combined 26 points off turnovers.
It’s no secret, the blueprint to punch back to VCU is to beat them at their own game. Very few teams in the A-10 or even the nation have the make up to do this, but URI has done as well as, or maybe even the best job over the last few seasons at doing this. While the big man matchup between Cyril Langevine and Marcus Santos-Silva is always a fun battle to watch when these two teams play, it’s the guard play of Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell who will determine if the Rams can get their first big road win of the season. While Fatts Russell has been (mostly) the best player on the floor for URI so far this season, he isn’t the X-factor for David Cox.
Senior guard Jeff Dowtin is the single most important player on the floor for Rhode Island in this matchup. His steady play as a ball handler has helped URI navigate to victories over VCU in the past, and it’ll be called upon once again. In games won against VCU last season, Dowtin had just one turnover while sitting only four minutes out of a possible 80. Compare that to Russell, who even in the two winning efforts had five turnovers in each game. While Russell’s dynamic offense is gonna be key for URI to get a win on the road, whether Rhode Island wins or loses will be determined by the play of Dowtin.