Jermaine Harris and the URI Rams are back in action Dec. 30 vs. St. Bonaventure. (Photo courtesy WKU Athletics)
By KEVIN WEHNER
Putting a puzzle together can be quite difficult, sorting through hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pieces to find the exact fit. It’s often unknown where you begin, how long it might take or when the jigsaw answers finally come.
My mother and I, for example, spent much longer than we had planned one quarantine afternoon looking for all the right parts.
The same goes for University of Rhode Island head basketball coach David Cox. He’s trying to figure out exactly where his puzzle pieces go. The Rams sit at 3-5 (0-1 in the A-10) as the gauntlet of conference play approaches. There were many unknowns to start the year with a team composed of 11 newcomers, including six transfers, and the Rams learned a lot after a rigorous non-conference slate that brought ample opportunities in challenging environments. The win column may not resemble what the group had hoped for but Cox is focused on constructing that consistent, winning recipe.
“We played 10 guys tonight, we might be getting to the point where we have to shorten the rotation so guys get more comfortable playing with one another,” Cox said after a loss to Davidson that opened Atlantic 10 play.
It takes time to build a winning culture, particularly with a whole new group of players. Typically the teams who are successful in March look quite better than when they first took the floor in November. With the hurdles of this season taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no exhibition games, no secret scrimmages, and practice limitations. That hindered the development and cohesion of this cache of talent for URI.
The Rams have lost the last three games, including the 67-58 defeat against Davidson on Dec. 18. A 6:49 second-half scoring drought allowed the Wildcats to pull away in the Ryan Center, and raised questions about who the mainstays will be in the rotation going forward.
After a 12-day break, the coaching staff is planning to shorten the rotation but the decision on who that may or may not include has yet to be made.
“We’re going to shorten the rotation based on productivity,” Cox said. “Moving forward, based on the first nine or 10 games, we’re going to start making necessary decisions.”
The Rams have consistently used a 10-man rotation this year and the key offensive contributors change game-by-game. Fatts Russell, as expected, is the most reliable weapon. He has led the team in scoring four times, averaging 14.4 points per game despite being slowed by a sore foot.
After that, it’s been relatively inconsistent on the offensive end. Jeremy Sheppard averaged 11.8 points per game through the first six contests, yet in the last two he’s scored just three points.
Malik Martin, D.J. Johnson, Antwan Walker, Makhel Mitchell and Jalen Carey have all finished top two on the team in scoring in an individual game, however none of them are averaging double figures.
URI has faced inconsistency shooting during its three-game skid. In each of its three losses the Rams have had a half where they shot under 38 percent from the field, including a woeful 25.9 percent first half at Wisconsin.
In the five games where the game was within a seven-point margin under the 2:00 mark, Cox has used 12 different line-up combinations down the stretch. The Rams are 1-4 in those contests.
In its most recent loss in the conference opener to Davidson, Allen Betrand played the final 3:48 despite it being his debut in a URI uniform. The Towson transfer looked solid with 8 points on 3-of-6 shooting in 8:31 of playing time.
However, Betrand being out there during his first game is a testament to how Cox may not be completely convinced who he can count on in the closing stages of important, tight games.
The Rams have certainly shown flashes of their full potential both in individual performances and as a team. The next step for the program is to continue building team chemistry, but also consistently adding to the win column. That won’t be easy against the next opponent, St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies’ season has been riddled with cancellations due to COVID-19. The trip to Kingston Wednesday will be the Bonnies (2-0) third game of the season.
Coach Mark Schmidt brings yet another talented bunch led by Preseason All-Atlantic 10 selections Kyle Lofton and Osun Ossunyi. “Two high-level players, they could play anywhere in the country at any level. I think both of them are pros,” Cox said in praise of the Bonnies talented duo.
In regards to the Rams’ rotation, Cox insisted he’ll start off with the same 10 players getting their opportunities but those will dwindle based on performance.
“They’re going to have to take advantage of their minutes,” Cox said. “Come clutch time tomorrow we’ll shrink that.”