KINGSTON – It hasn't been the easiest campaign so far for the University of Rhode Island men's basketball squad. New coaches, new roles, and new players have led to some growing pains for the team, but things are looking up as of late.
The Rams picked up their biggest win of 2018 on Sunday, beating West Virginia at Mohegan Sun, 83-70. That victory – and a trip this weekend to Hawaii – has some Rhody players feeling confident.
“That was a big one for us,” guard Jeff Dowtin said. “Boosted our confidence a lot. Played a great game, everyone was clicking on all cylinders. Rebounding, shooting, defense. We can't dwell on that too long. We have a nice trip coming up this weekend.”
Fatts Russell said the team must move forward.
“We celebrated a little bit after the game, but today we moved past it,” Russell said. “Being able to watch the edit of the game [helped us] move past it.
“We always knew what we could do. Everybody played well.”
Russell is mired in the worst shooting slump of his basketball career. He is 9-55 (16.4 percent) on 3-point attempts and hasn't been much better from within the arc (23-63, 36.5 percent). Other than a 1-6 mark on 3-pointers, he had one of his better games against West Virginia on Sunday.
“I've been struggling shooting but my confidence is still there,” said Russell, who tied a season-high with five assists in the win. “I believe. Coach believes in me, tells me all the time. I'm just going to keep shooting, get out of it.
“In the beginning, first couple games, it was really tough on me. I wasn't used to it – first time this long [of a slump has happened] to me. Coach has been a great leader for me. The guys have been behind me 100 percent. That gives me even more confidence.”
The Rams as a team have not been putting on a shooting clinic. They have spent the bulk of the season 352nd in 3-point field goal percentage. Portland St.'s team-wide mark of 19.3 percent is the only one currently lower than URI's 21.2. While the outside shots have remained elusive, coach David Cox has seen plenty of things he's liked recently when it comes to his team's offense.
“After the Brown game, I thought that was the first sign of improvement in terms of moving the ball,” Cox said. “We didn't shoot the ball that well then, but the Holy Cross game was another step in improvement. Still didn't shoot the ball that well, but we were taking the right shots.”
The 83 points were the second-most the Rams have scored in a game this year. Their five 3-pointers were the most in a game since they beat Harvard on Nov. 16.
Elite defense has lessened the pressure on the offensive play. The team currently ranks 34th in KenPom.com's Defensive Efficiency stat, and sport the second-best 3-point defense in the country.
“That's the culture,” Cox said. “I've been fortunate enough to be part of that for the past four or five years. Nothing has changed, the way we prepare defensively. Our core defensive drills, the way we scout, all those things are still intact. The culture was established by Danny [Hurley] and still exists.”
URI hopes to bring that culture along with them on a cross-country trip this weekend. The Rams are scheduled to play in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, with games slated for Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday.
“This will be my first time going to Hawaii, I'm definitely looking forward to it,” Dowtin said. “Never played there before.”
“I'm looking forward to it, I know it's a beautiful state,” Russell said, who also has never been to the Aloha State.
Cox said it will be more than basketball.
“It'll be a great experience for these guys,” Cox said. “It's tough being away from home on Christmas, so this is probably the next best thing. We're going to a beautiful island these guys have never been to before.”
The team will have some time off between the weekend games and their finale on Tuesday. Off-court plans?
“They said something about snorkeling, I don't know too much about that,” Dowtin said. “I'm just excited to play.
“The best [Christmas] gift we can give is winning a championship on the road. That's what we're gonna focus on.”
The Rams play Bucknell Saturday at 10 p.m., with the times of the other games relying on that result.