SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – A year after a lot of growing pains, Rhode Island has, quite simply, grown up a lot. You could see it over the course of the season, and on Tuesday night, it was even clearer as the Rams took care of Iona in the first round of the NIT.
And along the way, we may have gotten a glimpse of the future in more ways than one for this team.
Rhode Island and Iona were a study in contrasts in the regular season. Iona was known for its high-powered offense, putting up nearly 80 points per game on nearly 47 percent shooting, including 40 percent from long range. The Gaels often have five players on the floor who are a threat to score in double figures. The Rams, on the other hand, are known for their defense, as they were second in the Atlantic 10 in field goal percentage defense (40.7 percent), second in turnovers forced and third in rebounding margin. It was strength against strength.
Then it wasn’t. The Rams, while a capable offensive team, looked more like the high-powered offense for a lot of the night, running their way to a 51-point first half by going 7-13 from long range and getting 13 assists on 18 field goals.
“We felt like we would get great opportunities to score,” said head coach Dan Hurley. “Because of their style of defense, we wanted to take advantage of open opportunities early in the shot clock, because we feel like we have a really good team.”
While the Rams weren’t nearly as good in the second half, they still outscored Iona by one. They kept putting pressure on Iona’s defense, and while they shot below 40 percent on the evening, they defended better and still put up 88 points on the night.
“It felt good to play in this game, because it was a lot faster, and I like to play fast,” said guard Jarvis Garrett, who had a double-double with ten points and ten assists with just one turnover. “It was fun.”
Hurley said the Rams are a tired team. This group has a lot of miles on their bodies, especially after playing a couple of battles on back-to-back days in Brooklyn last week. He’s trying to manage the minutes, and that was why they needed, and received, a good deal of bench production. That was perhaps the biggest difference in the game.
“We tried to challenge the bench a little bit,” said Hurley. “We started two freshmen and two sophomores who are tired. Hassan Martin is absolutely exhausted from just how hard he’s played. Our freshmen are tired, E.C. (Matthews) is tired. That’s where our bench needed to step up for us today.”
Rhode Island’s reserves outscored Iona’s 32-0. In addition, they had a big 25-3 edge on the glass, so the production was there at both ends of the floor. Biggie Minnis (13 points, six rebounds), T.J. Buchanan (ten points, five rebounds) and Earl Watson (11 rebounds in 15 minutes) all came up big off the bench.
Hurley said the faster pace was not only about the opponent. The NIT is being played with a 30-second shot clock, but it didn’t matter with the pace of this game. Iona naturally doesn’t use much of the shot clock, and on Tuesday the Rams didn’t, either. In addition, it may be a sign of things to come now that this team has grown so much over the season.
“It’s a sign of how we’re going to try to play in the future offensively,” said Hurley. “This year, we’ve been such a great defensive team and tried to grind out games, because that’s what this roster has had to do. I think you’ll see us playing at a much faster pace moving forward beyond this year.”
The Rams have played a slate full of meaningful games this season, as they were in the mix for the top spot in the conference all along. As impressive as being right there is that they had tough losses, like the one at home to VCU, and grew from them rather than letting any of them become a bigger setback. Being a young team, a lagging effect might have been a possibility more so than with a veteran team. There has been little, if any, regression along the way; there has been growth all along, even if not always at the same pace. Tuesday was the latest example of it.