The 2020-21 season has been nothing short of an up-and-down experience for the Rhode Island Rams. Let’s take a look at some areas of concern, and areas of optimism, ahead of February’s gauntlet of A10 games.
Not a lot went right in URI’s game against Fordham. But turnovers from their primary ball-handler Jeremy Sheppard was not one of those areas of concern. Though the rest of the team struggled, per usual. But, the silver lining was to see Sheppard capable of running the point without senior Fatts Russell in the picture.
Turnovers have continued to be an area of concern for these Rams, committing turnovers on 20.4% of their possessions. Unfortunately that’s an area that has yet to be improved on, with that rate sticking around 20.2% in their last 3 games. Should Fatts return, there’s hope that their offense should have enough consistency between him and Sheppard to chip away at that abysmal turnover rate.
Once a frustrating trait of this year’s team, David Cox has gotten his Rams to really play a cleaner defense, with less committed fouls as of late. Throughout the entire season, Rhode Island has averaged 19 fouls per game, or committed a foul on 25.6% of defensive possessions.
However, as mentioned, they’ve been far better (albeit possibly due to a different type of opponent). In their last 3 games, they’ve averaged just 12.7 fouls per game and only committed fouls on 18.7% of defensive possessions. Those are good enough for 17th and 16th in the nation for that most recent 3 game stretch. This is critical to maintain for a team that struggles to force turnovers at a high (or even above average) clip.
On the flip-side – Rhody’s been one of the best teams in the country in drawing fouls. Their 20.2 fouls drawn per game, is good enough for 37th in the nation. That number translates to the Rams being fouled by their opponents on 27.2% of possessions. A very strong rate, good enough for 61st in the nation for the season. That rate is even more impressive considering their possessions per game rate of 74.3 (74th in the nation).
The Arrival of Makhel Mitchell
Part of drawing those aforementioned fouls has been the emergence of sophomore big man Makhel Mitchell. Though he failed to get to the line at all against the stingy interior defense of Fordham, his previous 3 games he was able to average 8.67 free throw attempts per game. Unfortunately he’s only shooting 50% from the line during that stretch. Even still, Mitchell has been showing a ton of improvement since his early season shooting woes.
Mitchell’s offensive production has been a revelation – but his rousing impact on the defensive end has to be mentioned. He’s logged at least 1 block in 13 of 16 games this season (2 of which the first 2 games of the year when he logged 12 & 13 mins). Not only that, but his ability to control himself from committing fouls has been a great change as well. After fouling out in those first 2 games of the season, Michell has fouled out just twice in the 14 games since. The most recent time was in their loss against UMass, so he gets a pass for fouling out considering he was defending the un-guardable Tre Mitchell.
With Makhel Mitchell playing much more consistently amid a crowded frontcourt, there’s some potential of Rhody super-lineups. Let’s get crazy. Imagine sure-handed guard Malik Martin (6’6) at the point, flanked by DJ Johnson (6’7) and Antwan Walker (6’7) at the wings. A big man duo of Jermaine Harris (6’8) and Mitchell (6’10) would be too much for almost any A10 defense to sufficiently match up with. David Cox – please let us see this lineup even for just a minor stretch of possessions while Fatts/Sheppard rest!
Wednesday Night Matchup with La Salle
Rhode Island's Fatts Russell (core muscle injury) will be a game-time decision for tonight's game against La Salle, per David Cox. Averages 15.2 PPG.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 27, 2021
First and foremost, the question everyone (including La Salle) is wondering… will Fatts Russell play? After seeing how poorly the offense did against Fordham, having Russell would be HUGE for Rhode Island to right it’s course. It’d help to have his scoring ability against an opponent also hovering in the middle of the pack of the A10.
BUT, more importantly, I’d argue the pace that Fatts is able to set for the Rams offense may be the most critical part of him playing or not playing. That may seem like a given, or a minor factor to some, but after the Fordham game – his impact has never seemed bigger. Over the course of the 2020-21 season Rhody’s averaged 74.3 possessions per game. Against Fordham, that number plummeted to just 64 possessions. Rhody might need at least 70 possessions to stay in control against this La Salle team.
Fatts’ Home Court Matters
There’s no denying that during his time as a Ram, Fatts Russell, the Philadelphia native, has played with a little extra pep in his step against the teams from his home city.
As Bill Koch of the Providence Journal mentions, Rhody is 10-1 against the A10’s Philadelphia teams (La Salle & St. Joseph’s) with Fatts Russell. That record includes 5-0 against La Salle, during Russell’s career with the Rams.
As for Fatts’ personal production in those games – it’s right in line to translate to those W’s. In 4 games in Philadelphia, Fatts is averaging 24 points per game. His most recent 2 games were both against St. Joseph’s where he dropped 41, and 25 points, respectively.
Phila, Rhody’s Home Away From Home?
Also of note in regards to the whereabouts of this game – junior guard Allen Betrand is ALSO from the City of Brotherly Love. For Betrand, this is his first game back playing in his home city since February 8th, 2020 when he was still playing for Towson.
How’d that game against Drexel go? Oh nothing major – he just dropped 31 points on 16 shots in a Towson win! Safe to say, I bet the Drexel Dragons are happy to not have to face Betrand this year.
So, even if Fatts isn’t able to play – Allen Betrand should be monitored closely… he’s a prime candidate to catch fire tonight in Philly.
Time to Right The Ship
Now’s the time for David Cox and his Rams to correct their direction for the season and build momentum. That sort of momentum is going to prove to be much needed ahead of a tough stethc. Their next 6 scheduled games are against opponents currently ahead of them in the A10 standings.
Prediction (assuming Fatts Russell plays):
La Salle: 62
You can follow along live for this matchup on Twitter at @BigGilli & @A10Talk on Wednesday afternoon/evening. Be well and #GoRhody!