SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team dipped its toes into the water of the 2019-20 season with a scrimmage versus Boston College and Saturday’s exhibition game against Rhode Island College.
Both were important steps, because the Rams will be in the deep end soon enough.
Before the season is a week old, the Rams will travel to take on No. 7 Maryland. A power-five Alabama team visits Kingston right after. Even Tuesday’s season opener, often an easy tuneup, comes against an LIU team that was labeled the preseason favorite in the Northeast Conference.
“Very important for our guys to get out there and compete against another team, play together, get through some adverse situations,” head coach David Cox said after the 93-55 win over RIC. “There wasn’t too much adversity tonight, but they made some runs, and it was good for us to be able to talk about during timeouts and halftime. Obviously, we have a much more formidable foe versus LIU - a very well-coached team with a guy who’s very familiar with this league. We expect to get a team that’s very ready for us next week.”
The running start is part of a carefully designed slate that should put the Rams in the NCAA Tournament conversation, provided they navigate it like they think they can. Picked fourth in the Atlantic 10, URI returns all five starters from a team that surged at the end of last year, capping an up-and-down ride with a run to the conference tournament semifinals. Three of those starters – Cyril Langevine, Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell – earned spots on preseason all-conference teams. A fourth, sophomore Tyrese Martin, appears poised for a breakout after scoring 20 points in the scrimmage and leading the team with 22 against RIC.
That group will do a lot of heavy lifting, especially with URI’s newfound depth now including some question marks. Transfers Antwan Walker and Jeremy Sheppard are both in the NCAA waiver process as they await word on their eligibility. They sat out Saturday’s exhibition.
“We’re anticipating it will come before the season, but quite honestly, we had anticipated we would have known by this point,” Cox said. “It doesn’t put us in the best place right now.”
Potential absences will put even more on the shoulders of Langevine, Dowtin, Russell and Martin, plus sophomores Jermaine Harris and Dana Tate. Langevine, Dowtin, Russell and Martin were the only players in double figures against RIC.
“We had the upper hand as far as manpower, size, athleticism and that was basically the key tonight,” Cox said. “Our defense was solid, not at its greatest. Our offense was solid. I thought we moved the ball relatively well and played with great pace. We’ve got to shoot the ball a little bit better. We’ve got to get to the free throw line and make those free throws. We left a lot of meat on the bone tonight. We’ll get back in the lab and get to work. Our focus now is LIU next week.”
Martin averaged 8.1 points per game last season but showed flashes of what’s to come once he moved into the starting lineup. He scored in double figures in eight of nine games at the start of conference play.
He was efficient Saturday, making nine of 13 field goal attempts.
“Just being more aggressive,” Martin said of his goals this year. “I feel like that’s something I have to bring to the team this year.”
“His overall skillset has truly gone to the next level - his ball-handling, his passing, his vision,” Cox said. “He’s just a lot more comfortable on the basketball this year.”
Cox also had high praise for Russell, the junior sparkplug who has had moments of stardom paired with deep slumps in his first two years as a Ram.
“If this young man can keep playing the way he’s played throughout the preseason - just with the pace and the efficiency and the selflessness - I think that bodes well for us moving forward,” Cox said.
While Walker and Sheppard were sidelined Saturday, three freshmen and a junior-college transfer made their debuts. Freshman Jacob Toppin made a big entrance with a steal and 360 dunk in the first half, en route to four points. Mekhi Long scored six and Gregory Hammond had two. Junior college transfer D.J. Johnson scored one point.
“I thought they played pretty well,” Cox said. “There were some nerves, obviously, particularly with Jacob and Greg. It was good for Jacob to get that breakaway and show off his athleticism. Mekhi is pretty steady. He’s just very, very even-keeled. He’s been that way throughout the summer, so I didn’t expect him to get rattled. Greg got his feet wet early and I took him out. When I reinserted him, I thought he was a lot more comfortable. But it was good for them to get out here in front of the crowd and get through the game.”
The next one will count. LIU and head coach Derek Kellogg – the former UMass head man – visit the Ryan Center on Tuesday.
“It was exciting to get back out there for our fans,” Russell said. “We got a taste of competition. For the young guys, giving them the first take of how it‘s going to be. It was exciting. We’re just ready for LIU, honestly.”