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Bad Home Stretch For Rhode Island

February 27, 2008 Columns No Comments



Rams Struggle In Key Home Stretch

by Phil Kasiecki

SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – The past week wasn’t one for the books as far as Rhode Island is concerned. The Rams’ key stretch has come and gone, and along with it, at least most of the hope the home team had of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Sunday’s 90-83 loss to Saint Joseph’s capped a three-game homestand for Rhode Island that looked to be a vital stretch in the season. The Rams’ record in that span was 0-3, which is certainly not what the doctor ordered. After this stretch, they have a 6-7 record in Atlantic 10 play and their NCAA Tournament hopes look to be in trouble, something that was unthinkable a month ago.

The Rams went up against three good teams, but the reality is that if you are to be an NCAA Tournament team, you have to beat some good teams along the way. There’s no shame in last Monday’s loss to Xavier, a team that is a sleeper Final Four contender, although it was a missed opportunity for a signature win. But Thursday night’s loss to UMass and Sunday’s loss to Saint Joseph’s are games a team like Rhode Island needed to win if an NCAA Tournament bid is to come, save for being victorious the night before Selection Sunday in Atlantic City.

The past week was a chance for Rhode Island to put itself in a solid position for an NCAA Tournament bid. Three wins, or even two with a loss to Xavier, would have put the Rams at either 9-4 or 8-5 in Atlantic 10 play with three to go. If they even went 1-2 in the final three games after a good week of home games, they would have a winning conference record, which might be enough given the conference’s strength, the separation Xavier has achieved from the rest of the pack and the weakness at the bottom. But now the Rams need to win three straight to get to 9-7.

“We’re struggling. I don’t know any way to put it,” said senior forward Will Daniels.

The Rams’ struggles are most pronounced on the defensive end, as they have been for most of the season. Even early on, when they started off 14-1 and were nationally ranked in the polls, the Rams were often out-scoring teams. Opponents shoot over 43 percent against the Rams on the season, but in Atlantic 10 play that number jumps to 46.6 percent. In the three losses this past week, only UMass shot below 50 percent – at 48.4 for the game – and the three teams combined to shoot 54 percent from the field.

Rams head coach Jim Baron wanted to get a “Runnin’ Rams” style going last year, and that continued this year. While his teams have historically played good defense, having to grind out low-scoring wins in recent seasons wasn’t characteristic of many of his teams, either. He said he’s always been a “scoring” coach. If the play of late is any indication, his team may have gone too far in the opposite direction.

“We put a lot of emphasis on changing and really pushing the ball, and I just didn’t think we would be giving up this many easy buckets,” said Baron after Sunday’s game. “We emphasized pushing the ball and scoring. Early on, in January, I thought we were doing a good job of defending.”

The players have spoken about defense all season as well, so it’s not as if it became issue for the first time last week. They have talked about working on that aspect of the game even when they were winning.

On Sunday, the defensive issues were very clear. Every other possession, it seemed, Saint Joseph’s got an open look; Baron noted this after the game. When they had an open shot, most of the time it went down, which basically gave them easy points even from behind the arc. The Hawks were 9-16 on three-pointers on Sunday. For the game, Saint Joseph’s shot 62.2 percent, just behind their season high against rebuilding Fairleigh Dickinson to open the season.

Baron has talked often about the team’s need to get better. While many coaches say that, it’s not one of the many examples of coach-speak. As the season goes on, opponents have more to draw from when scouting a team, so teams have to be able to adjust, especially if they can’t dictate the flow of the game. Additionally, teams inside a conference are more familiar with one another than they are with teams outside the conference from playing each other every season.

Right now, it looks like this team was better earlier in the season, and that’s not a good thing. Their players have picked up on this as well as the coach.

“As the season goes along, you have to play better every game,” said Daniels. “You have to get better progressively every game. We haven’t done that yet.”

Now that the Rams have added some losses, including a few tough ones, it doesn’t get easier. That adds in more adversity than they’ve had to face all season, and at a critical time. Three straight home losses is never easy to absorb, and they have lost five of six overall. It makes bouncing back that much more difficult, but it’s also something they need to do now more than ever.

     

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