PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Non-conference play has been both a time of promise and a time of difficulty for Rhode Island. The promise has shown in the wins and at times in some of the losses, while the difficulty is certainly there in losses like Wednesday’s 68-60 loss at arch-rival Providence. In that game, as much as any, you can see the potential as well as the areas of concern for this team.
In running out to a 5-3 start, Rhode Island has certainly impressed at times and looked like a team that has put most of the growing pains of last season behind them. The Rams are more talented as a whole, and holdovers pressed into more immediate duty last season than the staff probably wanted have benefited from that. E.C. Matthews looks ready to blossom into one of the Atlantic 10’s best talents, while Hassan Martin looks stronger and more confident. Freshman Jared Terrell has made an instant impact and classmate Jarvis Garrett helps off the bench.
You see this in the win over Nebraska early in the season, a game where Matthews had a big double-double and Martin had 12 rebounds and four blocked shots to help them win despite shooting 34.4 percent from the field. You see this in the 75-43 thumping of Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, a game where they forced 23 turnovers and shot nearly 66 percent from the field. And you saw some of it against Providence, where Matthews had a season-high 27 points on 9-15 shooting.
But the Rams also have plenty of room to grow, and on Wednesday that was evident at the offensive end for starters. The Rams turn the ball over 14 times per game, a number topped by just three Atlantic 10 teams. They shoot below 31 percent from long range. And this is still not an overly experienced team, evidenced by some of the decisions they make on offense.
On Wednesday, Providence slowed the pace, and Rhode Island either turned the ball over or took a questionable shot too many times. They gave it away 15 times, and while they shot 46.8 percent from the field, they lost the possession battle as Providence had three fewer turnovers and a 32-26 rebounding edge. The Rams did just enough to hang around but not enough to seriously threaten the Friars until the final minute.
“That stretch in the second half, in particular, where we continually turned the ball over around the 12-minute mark, was really debilitating,” said head coach Dan Hurley.
The stretch Hurley alluded to was one that saw Providence score six straight points as part of an 11-2 run to go up by nine, before battling back with the next six points. Providence then scored seven more unanswered to get the lead up to double digits, aided by Ram turnovers and bad shots. It was too deep a hole to climb out of.
The Rams have been a good defensive team thus far, but didn’t keep that up against the Friars. Providence shot 50 percent from the field on Wednesday and turned the ball over 12 times. Coming into the game, opponents were shooting 40 percent against the Rams and giving the ball away over 15 times per outing. Wednesday also marked the second time all season a team had more assists than turnovers against them; the Rams have lost both, with the other one coming against Kansas in Orlando.
Rhode Island had some success when they pressed Providence late. It was somewhat surprising considering that they put a lot of pressure on the ball in the halfcourt all night long, and often got burned by good ball movement and successful drive-and-dish plays by Providence. Late in the game, they forced some Providence turnovers and got baskets from it, eventually getting within three in the final minute.
That, along with the Rams appearing to have some depth in the backcourt, gives reason to believe this team might do well to press more. It’s a possibility going forward, especially looking back at earlier games they lost (to Kansas and Georgia Tech in Orlando).
“In retrospect, all three times we’ve played those games this year, our approach should have been more aggressive from the start,” Hurley reflected.
The non-conference slate lightens up the rest of the way, as all three remaining games are at home. All three are winnable, though the last is against a Brown team that won in the same building two nights earlier. As this portion winds down, the promise they have shown has to be a larger percentage of their game than the difficulty, and they will have to overcome the difficulty better.