Go Tell (Ask) Aunt Rhody…

Before he retired, my dad was a public school teacher and high school basketball coach. He was always great with life lessons, and basketball lessons. Being Greek, he was direct and didn’t offer much window dressing. Never let your man go baseline. Always hold the door open for a woman. If it’s a 50/50 game, bet on the home team. The rest was up to me.

One of those lessons that made it to a second sentence was that I didn’t have to know everything, but my job was to ask someone smarter than me on that subject. Then shut the hell up and listen.

So instead of relying on the three games I’ve watched Rhode Island on TV and a handful of KenPom stats to understand what is visiting us on Friday, I asked someone smarter than me. Chris DiSano is well-known in A10 circles, and the guy when it comes to Rhode Island. He’s plugged in and smart. Thankfully, he is also a friend so he was gracious with his time and expertise after Rhody’s tight victory at UMass last night.

We listen, in Q-and-A form:

When Rhode Island is rolling, what are they doing–running, physical defense, etc. What’s their calling card when we know they are playing well?

Rhode Island is at their best when a couple of areas are clicking. I believe this Rhode Island team is a better half-court defensive team than some of the recent “havoc” teams of Shaka but, like those teams, they truly thrive through creating live ball turnovers. And they have a habit of that, leading the A-10 in that category by a landslide. When they can get out and run they are deadly in transition. They have six guards, led by Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews, who have each scored 18 or more points in a game this year… and these guys fly and finish is transition as well as any contingent. Offensively, they’re at their best when they share it — which is normal. However, they’ve gotten a bit stagnant in a couple of recent games which makes them considerably more guard-able than when they’re moving defenders and then piercing with decisive drives that generate paint touches and ultimately points.

The other side: what didn’t Rhody do well in the games they lost, or what is happening when they struggle even in games they win?

This is a tough one because Rhode Island only has three blemishes in 20 games… and all three came with E.C. Matthews not completing the game (or playing at all). He was injured in a one-possession game at Nevada that Rhode Island would lose narrowly, then didn’t play in losses to No. 2 Virginia (neutral) and Alabama (road). Otherwise, Rhode Island is 13-0 with him. However, in the three losses, length has bothered the guards some and led to impatience and inefficiency in finishing; and we know VCU offers some length. Defensively, skilled players on the interior can bother the Rams (yes, Justin, they’re very aware of you). And as I alluded to above, some pockets of over-dribbling stagnate their offense occasionally.

But what makes them so tough is that very rarely will all of their guards have an off-game. In fact, in the first half against Duquesne that’s what happened. But Matthews answered the bell in the second half and, along with the defense, brought them back. Against UMass earlier in the year, four of the guards combined to shoot 5-24. Awful right? But Terrell and Stanford Robinson went 14-23 for 41 points and 17 rebounds. The result, a comfortable 22 point win.

I personally think Jeff Dowtin is the head of the snake. Agree? And if you disagree, that’s fine. What impact does Dowtin have on the flow of Rhody playing well?

Agree. Dowtin is an outstanding lead guard and holsters a head-scratching 108 assists to 23 turnovers on the year. He’s the best caretaker of the ball I’ve seen at Rhode Island in decades. Early in the year, he would occasionally force his own offense some and take contested shots off the dribble.  Perhaps he felt pressure to create for himself too — rather than just set up his mates. About seven games ago, he settled in and began taking the “right” shots. The rest is history. His vision has always been terrific, he has great length and a sneaky change of speeds repertoire. Not mentioned as much but equally important, he’s a tremendous defender. He’s long, disruptive, takes a great angles and really frustrates opposing guards. He’s a sophomore who plays like a senior most nights.

It’s a veteran team, and even the young guys have played significant minutes. Are they largely self-motivated, or is there something in external motivation Friday to go win in probably the league’s toughest building against the team that’s been to the A10 finals for five straight years?

Dan Hurley has done an outstanding job – almost Belichick-like – in having these guys laser-focused on the next game and only the next game. And the seniors are ambassadors for that messaging. There are times where Hurley will remark when asked in the press conference that he’s not sure, for example, who they’re even playing the following week and – knowing him as I do – I believe him. While a match-up with VCU always carries some extra shine, these guys are undefeated and making history at Rhode Island, so every night they’re the hunted and laying a growing streak on the line. They know and respect the standard your Rams have set over the years, but I think they’re largely self-motivated.

So you’re in the locker room with Coach Hurley. He confides in you what most worries him about this game, and what VCU can do. Given Rhody’s strengths and weaknesses, what is that?

I’d say talented seniors at home. Justin Tillman, plain and simple, is the type of forward that can have a day of it against Rhode Island if able to get to his spots and if the VCU guards can adequately initiate the offense, which is something URI takes away from most teams with their disruption. Beyond Tillman, however, Hurley has a tremendous amount of respect for Jonathan Williams and has remarked in the past that he feels he’s one of the toughest covers anywhere if you allow him to get downhill. While the Rams may be “content” to let Tillman get his, Hurley knows that Williams is the type of impact player that can get his teammates rolling — and that’s what you have to avoid on the road in a hostile environment if you’re Rhode Island.