Quote by Rhode Island dreams big
After an injury-riddled 2015/16 season, Rhode Island and coach Dan Hurley seems to have all the pieces for a memorable year: one of the best backcourt in the Atlantic 10, a frontcourt duo to anchor their defense and a deep bench. The Rams were last seen in the tournament in 1999, but they could be dancing again next March.
A few positives out of a terrible year
E.C. Matthews did not reach the end of the first half before tearing an ACL and being forced to spend the rest of the season watching from the stands. The Detroit native had a very good freshman year, averaging 16.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2 assists and was considered one of the preseason favorites to win the A-10 Player of the Year. And then, in the first half of the season opener against American, his knee gave out. It was just the beginning for the Rams. The whole season was a sequence of minor injuries that bugged the roster and prevented any chemistry development, costing URI an up and down year that came to a halt with the loss in the second round of the conference tournament. The 17-15 final record did not leave any hope for an invitation to the tournament.
Yet, there are a few positives to take away from such a difficult year. First among them is defense. Always a strength in Dan Hurley‘s teams, Rhode Island was first in the conference in points allowed per game (64.8), blocks per game (5.0) and was fifth in opponents field goal percentage (42.6%). The Rams were 63rd in defensive efficiency in Division I, per Kenpom, not even close to the 9th spot they achieved in the 2014/15 season (finished with a 23-10 record), but still quite good considering they were missing their best player and others were in and out of rotations due to other injuries.
Secondly, Matthews absence forced other players to step up and take on bigger responsibilities. Among wings, Jared Terrell was the first option on offense and if he had to improve his efficiency he might be lethal in URI’s backcourt. And when it comes to efficiency, junior Jarvis Garrett, one of the biggest positives last season, is a solid PG who takes care of the ball (1.99 assists/turnovers ratio) and shoots 41.9% from beyond the arc. The Milwaukee native also became the hero of the season for playing quite a few games with a mask intended to protect his injured face but that seemed a perfect fit in a Friday the 13th rehearsal.
Who’s gone and who’s come
Rhode Island was a pretty good defensive team, but offense was troublesome to say the least (116th in offensive efficiency, per Pomeroy). Clearly the team will benefit from Matthews being able to play again, considering he can score from anywhere on the court.
Another perimeter player who will help on this side of the ball is Stanford Robinson, a transfer from Indiana, who might be the X-factor coming off the bench. He is an athletic wing who can play the three perimeter spots and spent last season (he was not eligible because of the ruling on transferred players) working on extending his shooting range, the biggest hole in his game.
The frontcourt will still have Kuran Iverson (best rebounder on the team in 2015/16) and Hassan Martin: their impact on defense, altering shots in the paint and rebounding, will be once again among the best in the conference. Last season, Martin was 18th in the nation in blocks per game (2.5) and Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10. Sophomore Andre Berry will be part of the rotation as well. He did not get much playing time last year, but he was good towards the end of the season, with a signature performance (15 points in 13 minutes, 100% from the field) in an unexpected road win against Dayton.
PG McGlynn and center Watson are not part of the team anymore but the core is back, healthy, with one more year of experience and with more talent to stretch the rotation.
There are, in fact, four freshman at roster, most notably among them Jeff Dowtin and Mike Layssard Jr. The former is a combo guard with good offensive instincts both as a scorer and as a passer. The latter is a hybid PF-center with an imposing frame that projects as a rim protector and that could be heir to Martin in the future. Rhode Island went from having very short to very long rotation in one offseason, assuming everyone stays healthy.
An Italian in Kingston
What role will Nikola Akele have in this revamped roster? Hard to say, but it seems highly unlikely the ex Reyer Venezia player will find the same playing time he had in his freshman season. Actually, his time on the court might be reduced in such a talented roster. Last year he averaged 13.6 minutes per game, a lot more than what he was expected and mostly because of the injuries that plagued the team.
Since Pierfrancesco Oliva has been ruled out for the season, Akele will be the only Italian in the Atlantic 10 and he will have to produce another good year: as a role player, he shot well overall (45.5% from the field) even though he was not a big part of the offense, but was terrible at the free-throw line (5 of 18 for the season). His defense improved throughout the season, despite being undersized as a power forward, a role he often found himself into. This season, the competition at roster for both forward spots is tough and only the court can tell if his summer work will be enough to increase his role or if his playing time will dwindle.