After an inauspicious effort at the Big 12 Tournament, the Oklahoma Sooners will face the No. 7-seed Rhode Island Rams in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Pittsburgh. In case you aren’t familiar with the opponent, Dave Ascoli of Rhody Rampage (follow them on Twitter) is here to fill you in.
Rhode Island started 23-4 before dropping three of it’s final five games. Does that make you feel any less confident about this team than you did two weeks ago?
Not really. The Rams were due for a bit of a regression (and some adversity) after winning 16 in a row earlier in the season. One of those three losses was a 30-point blowout at home to Saint Joseph’s. It came on an emotional Senior Night, and also the game after the Rams clinched the regular season title. So there could have been some hangover effect there. Rhody was able to avenge that beat-down later on in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. And the other two losses came to the same team (Davidson), a well-coached squad that matches up well with URI. This is an upper classmen-heavy group that was steamrolling through their schedule for the better part of two months. I expect them to refocus and play their best basketball on Thursday.
URI likes to play at a much slower pace than OU. They’ve also shown that they can win games playing uptempo as they did against St. Joe’s in the A10 semifinals. Do you think Rhode Island will try to slow the game down and make OU play in a half-court offense?
They won’t want to turn it into a track meet, but Rhody is at their best when they’re playing in-your-shirt defense, forcing turnovers, and getting out in transition. Since the Sooners can be turnover prone, I’m thinking the Rams will ratchet their frantic defense up a notch. If they can tally 15+ fast break points, they’re in good shape. The key for URI will be getting back on ‘D’ and not allowing Oklahoma to do the same.
Who guards Trae Young?
I expect Dan Hurley to run a number of different guys at him, but the primary option will be Jeff Dowtin. Rhody’s sophomore point guard is one of the best on -ball defenders on the team, and you can tell by his reaction in this video (the Oklahoma match-up is announced at about the 11 second mark, and he’s the taller of the two guys with his phone out) that he’s pumped for the challenge. Dowtin (6’3”) has an inch on Young, and his wingspan has posed a problem for other point guards in the past. Obviously Young isn’t any other point guard, but if there’s anyone that’s going to contain him, it’ll be Dowtin.
What makes Jared Terrell so tough to defend?
I think it’s mainly because he does so many things well. He can create his own shot, he take take it to the bucket, or he can pull up from three. And he can also find the open man if you try to double him. He’s also a tremendous competitor, and he thrives in big games. It is worth noting that he’s coming off a sub-par (by his standards) Atlantic 10 Tournament. Given his nature, I expect him to refocus and play his best in the NCAAs. If not, it could be a struggle for the Rams. As Terrell goes, so goes URI.
Andre Berry was a much bigger part of the game-plan in the A-10 tournament than he had been pretty much all year. Is that something you expect to continue against OU?
I think that was more a function of the defense that the Rams saw in Washington, D.C. rather than a conscious game plan from Hurley. VCU, St. Joe’s, and Davidson all rolled out a zone against Rhody, which can be their kryptonite at times. URI is a guard-heavy team, and zone defenses have limited the likes of Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews. Fortunately, a zone does open things up for the big man. Rhode Island took what the defense gave them and fed the beast. If the Sooners go with a zone you’re likely to see more of the same from Berry. But if they stick in a man, it’s likely that Cyril Langevine sees more minutes off the bench.
URI shot 31 3s against St. Joe’s on Saturday. Obviously OU isn’t afraid to let it fly from deep either. Do you see this turning into a shootout?
Hopefully not, as that would play right into Oklahoma’s hands. Rhody isn’t the best three point shooting team (179th in the country), and they’re a much better team when their guards are driving and not taking jumpers. Those threes were once again a function of the zone defense as St. Joe’s gave the Rams any open three that they wanted. It’s hard to blame them -- Rhode Island was 3-for-29 from deep when the Hawks used that same strategy back on February 27th. Thankfully, URI drained 14 triples at a 45 percent clip on Saturday, but that’s not their strength by any means.
Lon Kruger is coaching in his 18th NCAA Tournament while Dan Hurley is coaching in just his second. Do you see Kruger’s experience coaching in March as an advantage for OU?
Most definitely. The Rams will be relying on the fact that they’re returning largely the same roster from last year’s tourney team -- the only newbie seeing regular minutes is freshman Fatts Russell. They’ll draw from that, and they acquitted themselves well a year ago in the Dance. But there’s no substitute for the kind of experience Kruger brings to the table. He was coaching at Florida when Hurley was still playing at Seton Hall, although it doesn’t look like the two schools faced each other in that span.
Do you think URI has a geography advantage with the game being played in Pittsburgh?
Based on my Twitter timeline, there are going to be more than a few Rhody fans in the Steel City. Including me. And URI fans have some experience in Pittsburgh. The 2017 Atlantic 10 Tournament was held at PPG Paints Arena, and that turned out pretty okay. Pittsburgh was the best possible draw from a geographic standpoint, especially considering the Rams were shipped off to Sacramento last year. Still, word is Rhode Island was one of the most well represented fan bases in Sac Town last year. Expect a decent amount of Keaney Blue in the stands on Thursday.
Are you worried that the announcers won’t talk about Trae Young enough during the game?
If you made your bracket based solely on “angriest coach wins” how far does URI make it?
At least to the Sweet Sixteen, where Rhody and Arizona State would play a 17-overtime game that would go down in NCAA Tourney history. But in all seriousness, I don’t think Hurley’s ‘angry’... just incredibly intense. And he’s actually at his mellowest this season thanks to his new regimen of yoga, meditation, and mushroom coffee (really).
I’m taking Rhode Island 81 - Oklahoma 75. If I’m right, I have E.C. Matthews as the player that gets tripped by Grayson Allen in the second round.
How far do you project URI going in the tournament?
Well it’s probably going to be Duke on Saturday, unless Iona channels their inner Mercer. I know the Blue Devils have had a few head-scratching losses this season - and they’re good for another one in the tourney every few years - I’m not sure I see the Rams getting by them.
Who is the greatest Rhode Islander of all time?
Technically only Bobby was born in Rhode Island, but I’m still saying The Farrelly Brothers. Dumb and Dumber is one of the greatest contributions to human history, and Rhode Island produced the two men who wrote and directed it. You’re welcome.
What’s one fact about the state of Rhode Island that you think Oklahomans should know?
We have more than a few food colloquialisms that are unique only to our state. Like... really unique. But I promise you, a meal of stuffies, three all the way, and a coffee cabinetis absolutely delicious.
Was URI’s win over Kansas in Oklahoma City the biggest sports triumph in the history of the state of Rhode Island (excluding anything related to Boston/New England pro teams)?
Oh man, I totally forgot that game was in OKC. Yes, that’s gotta be it. Some will tell you that a school called ‘Providence College” or “PC” made the Final Four in the 80s, or even won the D1 Men’s Hockey National Championship a few years ago, but I’ve never heard of them.