URI Rams Season Preview
After one of the best seasons in program history, URI Basketball heads into the 2018-19 season in a completely different place than they were just a year ago.
They unofficially opened the season last week, with a closed scrimmage at St. John’s University on Sunday, Oct. 21 and an open exhibition against Pace University at the Ryan Center the following Thursday. Rhode Island won both games, defeating St. Johns 85-79 and cruising to a 80-65 victory over Pace.
Despite the wins, there are a lot of questions surrounding the Rams as they start the regular season.
It isn’t breaking news that Dan Hurley left for UConn. After taking over as Rhody’s head coach in 2012, Hurley recruited EC Matthews, Hassan Martin, Kuran Iverson, Jared Terrell, and more- completely turning the program around. Their win against Trae Young and Oklahoma in March Madness this year marked their second straight tournament win off of their second straight tournament victory. Everyone knew Hurley wanted to get paid, and despite URI’s hefty offer, the culture around the Huskies effectively won him over.
Besides Hurley’s departure, five seniors walked the stage this spring. Matthews, Terrell, Stanford Robinson, Andre Berry, and Jarvis Garrett combined for 67 percent of the Ram’s offense last season. All five went on to play professional basketball, with Terrell headlining the group by earning a two-way contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The “New” Face of the Rams
A few days after the Hurley news broke, URI Athletic Director Thor Bjorn elected to stay within the program and hire David Cox. Cox spent the last two seasons as an associate head coach, and was an assistant coach for Hurley the two seasons prior. Prior to joining the program in 2014, Cox spent four years as an associate head coach at Rutgers, even stepping in for three games to go 3-0 as a Head Coach.
In college basketball, half of coaching is recruitment. Cox has a stacked recruiting resume with the Rams- playing a hand in bringing Stanford Robinson, Jeff Dowtin, Fatts Russell, Jermaine Harris and more to Rhode Island. The program felt that, in order to secure the recruiting class Hurley left Rhody with, hiring the man who recruited them was the smart move.
But Cox is more than just a recruiter. In a team where everything is new- new players, old players in new roles, new strategies- Cox shares that mindset with them. Across the board, it’s a new year in Rhode Island.
The Big Three: Here to Save the Day
It would be disrespectful to the five seniors to say that there would be no drop-off, but it would be disrespectful to the current team to count them out already. Rhody returns Jeff Dowtin, who proved to be one of the better point guards in the Atlantic 10- if not the country- last season. He finished tied for second in the NCAA in assist/turnover ratio, and led the A10 in assists per game, with 5.6. Dowtin earned a spot on the Preseason All A10 Second Team last week. He’s joined by fellow junior Cyril Langevine, who was named to the preseason all-defensive team as well.
Fatts Russell comes back for his second year in Kingston, and was an electric part of the offense last season. He had consecutive 20-point games, in wins against Brown University and Providence College, and averaged seven points in 18 minutes each game last season. Russell and Dowtin are expected to lead a group of freshman guards as they get their feet wet in college basketball. Both players, as well as Langevine, have proven to be efficient offensively, but now they need to carry the offensive load- a job that had never been theirs before.
“I have no other choice but to be a leader,” Russell said after the victory on Thursday. “I had a lot of experience last year, and with this team I have to step into a leadership role.”
If the exhibitions say anything, these three have what it takes to carry the offense, but it may be a lot of work. In the victory over St. John’s, Dowtin and Langevine combined for 45 points, and Langevine had a double-double with 23 points and 10 boards. Russell led the way over Pace, dropping 19 points and adding three steals. Dowtin and Langevine added 18 and 16, respectively, while the rest of the team added 27 points.
The Supporting Cast
The trio is joined by redshirt junior Christion Thompson rejoins the team after missing nearly two years to an injury. He’s scored 14 points combined in both scrimmages, and looks to add to the scoring load once he settles in again. Thompson adds a three-point shot that can be deadly at times, and will look to play the role of a two-way forward- much like Stanford Robinson last season.
“At the beginning, it was going really fast for me,” Thompson said after Thursday’s game, where he went 3-5 with eight points and three boards. “I just had to settle down and know what I bring to the team, and find myself again, really.” He added two steals and two assists on the night, and all three of his rebounds were offensive.
If there’s ever a silver lining to losing five seniors, it’s the recruits. Before crossing the Rhode Island border into Connecticut, Hurley left us with one of his best recruiting classes yet. The freshmen are led by Jermaine Harris, a 6’8 forward from Maryland. He was a highly sought after recruit, ranked No. 77 on the Rivals.com Rivals Top 150 2018 Prospect list.
Harris is joined by Omar Silverio, Tyrese Martin, Dana Tate, and Aris Tsourgannis. Silverio was considered a three-star recruit and had offers from several teams across the A10 after decommitting from Santa Clara. Martin, who played against new teammate Russell in high school, joins Silverio in the back court as another three-star recruit. He had offers from several teams in conference too, as well as Seton Hall. Tate comes out of Massachusetts and adds size and a jump shot to an already talented backcourt. He started in both exhibitions and looks to see significant time in the front court. Tsourgannis was recruited late, out of Greece, and replaced Mike Layssard on the roster.
What to Expect
As it always is with youth in mid-major programs, there are going to be growing pains. There are going to be off nights, where the upperclassmen are cold and no one can seem to score. There are going to be nights where everyone is shooting the lights out and the Rams look like world beaters. Ultimately, it’s going to take time for Rhode Island to find consistency. Even the older players, like Dowtin and Russell, are forming into new roles. Dowtin, after playing as a facilitator for the past few years, is going to need to be one of the main scorers for the Rams. Russell, in just his second year in Rhode Island, is expected to jump into a leadership role and be reliable night in and night out for a big portion of the offense. And, leading all the transitions, is first year Head Coach David Cox.
“We have a lot of things to work on,” Cox said on Thursday. “But it’s to be expected at this time of year.”
All the signs point to the Rams struggling in 2019. But this team is wildly talented. The recruiting class, while jumping into bigger roles than arguably any freshmen in program history, is stacked with what could be a group of Rhode Island legends. Dowtin and Langevine have both poured in big games in the NCAA Tournament during their freshman years, and Russell was a huge factor in the win over Oklahoma this year. Freshmen matter. While they’re new, and Cox is new, and Russell and Dowtin have new roles- these guys aren’t new to basketball. The non-conference schedule isn’t as difficult as it has been in the past, and offers great opportunities for this team to find their groove before they enter conference play.
Rhody opens the season with a home game against an in-state opponent, as they host the Bryant Bulldogs on Nov. 6. They were picked to finish fifth in the Preseason Atlantic 10 Coaches Poll.
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