SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – The road to wins and ultimately improvement will not be a smooth one for Rhode Island this season. It won’t be a success-only journey. The first week has shown that, and Friday night’s 72-59 win over North Carolina A&T was perhaps a microcosm of the journey thus far.
Earlier in the week, the Rams were blown out at SMU 89-58. It was quite a reversal of last season, when SMU came into town with a nice record against a weak schedule and were blown out of the Ryan Center. Although the Rams were now on the road, the personnel is much better, so one would have figured that if nothing else it would at least be a competitive game, although winning on the road would be tougher. SMU is also better this season, and the Mustangs ran out to a halftime lead and ran away in the second.
The first half on Friday night was far from a clinic at both ends of the floor and neither team had to be happy. Both teams turned the ball over ten times and it wasn’t good defense that was behind a lot of them. The lead went back and forth, with North Carolina A&T up 33-32 as they went to the locker room. The early minutes of the second looked to be more of the same, especially with both teams being in the penalty less than seven minutes into the half.
That was about when the Rams came alive and took the game over, using a run of 16 straight to take the lead for good. They shot 50 percent from the field and held North Carolina A&T to 36 percent for the second half, and a game that had been played within an eight-point window saw Rhode Island lead by as many as 17 before it was over.
“I thought we put the lingering effects of a poor performance, poor showing behind us a little better in the second half,” said head coach Dan Hurley, alluding to the loss at SMU.
Some things about this team appear to be emerging, especially from the second half, and they’re all positive.
The first and most notable is that the Rams’ depth is what it was thought to be before the season. They got noticeable contributions from all ten players who got in the game on Friday night, and different players came through at crucial junctures. In the first half, the players one would expect to keep them in the game did just that as Xavier Munford had nine points and Gil Biruta had seven. But both have been limited due to injury thus far, with Biruta being limited in the last practice before Friday. They also got a few key plays from Mike Aaman off the bench, another who is banged up with a bum ankle.
“I think what gets me excited as a coach is that arguably two of our top guys that we expected some huge production from, through three games have been dealing with some injuries, which is causing them to be less than their best right now,” said Hurley. “To be able to absorb that and get separation against Maine and get separation today bodes well for us.”
In the second, freshman E.C. Matthews keyed a 13-0 run that broke the game open, and it looks like Matthews is growing up fast and ready for a bigger role. He had a game-high 18 points on 6-11 shooting and handed out four assists, and spearheaded the big run to take the game over. In that time, you could start to see him looking like the young man who was highly-regarded coming to college.
“E.C. gave us a great lift offensively with his lane attacks and his playmaking,” said Hurley.
It was the young man’s best game yet by a good margin, and he did all of that efficiently in 22 minutes.
“With any young player, before you can lean on them real heavy, they have to get comfortable as a college basketball player,” said Hurley. “With the physicality of the game, the speed of the game, the intensity of the game, what’s at stake, I don’t think it’s that simple to plug and play a guy.”
The Rams also got a nice lift in the second half from T.J. Buchanan, although his numbers will understate what he did. He had just six points and three rebounds, but he keyed the defense and was in a lot of plays. It was easy to think that the junior would become an odd man out of sorts, given that the Rams already had Munford and Mike Powell on the perimeter to go with several highly-regarded newcomers, but Buchanan is going to find a way on the court and possibly during important stretches. He knows that the best way to do that is make plays and play off the others.
“I just try to come in and do the little things,” said Buchanan. “I know we’ve got a lot of guards that are very talented, so I have to come in off the bench and be a spark defensively.”
Rhode Island wasn’t going to become an Atlantic 10 powerhouse right away despite the big influx of new talent. Just like life itself, this isn’t going to be a success-only journey, although they surely hope to minimize the number of setbacks like Monday night’s. If they manage through the adversity that comes, there is good potential, and Friday night may be a good point on that path.