Since giving up 85 points to Brown in its non-conference finale, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team has rediscovered its defensive identity in Atlantic 10 play, so much so that it has moved into rarefied air among its Keaney blue predecessors.
In an era that has featured Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament titles and two NCAA Tournament trips, it’s this edition of the Rams that has come closest to matching the gold standard of defensive seasons for the defensive-minded program. URI is allowing .926 points per possession this season, the best mark since the 2014-15 team ranked 13th in the nation at .922.
“Defense wins games. Defense wins championships,” senior guard Jeff Dowtin said. “I think our defense contributes to our offense. The way we’ve been defending teams, checking ball screens, diving on loose balls, rebounding – I think we’re playing a great defensive game and that translates to our offense.”
The 2014-15 team delivered the first steps in URI’s arrival as an A-10 contender, going 23-10 and 13-5 in conference play en route to an NIT berth. Offense was often a struggle for those Rams, but the defense was one of the nation’s best. Efficient and more apt to play a slow, grinding style, URI allowed 60.2 points per game. Its season-high in points allowed was 76.
The current defensive stalwarts haven’t always looked the part. For one thing, they’re more willing to push the pace in a given game. URI gets about 71 possessions per game this year, compared to 66 in 2014-15, though the average number has climbed around college basketball since the switch to a shorter shot clock.
The 2014-15 team had an additional edge in 3-point defense, allowing just 3.5 per game at a 27 percent clip. Opponents currently make seven 3s per game at 30 percent.
There have also been outlier games, which have made it tougher for URI to pass the eye test. LSU scored 96 points on the Rams and West Virginia racked up 86.
Brown’s 85 was the last such big game, though, and the numbers haven’t lied in conference play. No one has gotten out of the 60s on the Rams, not even Richmond in URI’s lone A-10 loss.
“It’s a point of emphasis every day. It’s a part of our culture,” head coach David Cox said. “And we’re playing eight guys right now, so everybody kind of understands their role and understands what they need to do to stay on the floor. You’ve got to defend at a pretty high level and they’ve bought into that.”
The Rams allowed 69 points in the loss to Richmond, then held Davidson and VCU in the 50s to jumpstart their longest win streak of the season. They’ve also shut down St. Joseph’s and La Salle.
URI ranks second in the league in points per game allowed in conference action. They’re also second in field-goal percentage and they lead the conference in steals. The desire to force turnovers is a notable difference from the 2014-15 team. That squad nabbed 6.5 steals per game, while this year’s team is at 9.2. Games in which URI has forced below its average in turnovers have been challenges. URI had only four steals in the loss to Richmond.
The 2014-15 Rams were more likely to block a shot than make a steal, with Hassan Martin as one of the nation’s leaders. If having a star provides the measuring stick, these Rams are just as good at swiping turnovers, with Fatts Russell ranking second nationally in steals per game.
“We pride ourselves on defense,” Russell said. “We look at ourselves as a defensive team, honestly. Every day, we come to practice and just focus on defense.”
The Rams hope their defense, like it did for their predecessors, propels them into a top-four spot in the A-10 standings – and then some.
“Just be consistent,” Dowtin said. “We’re on a three or four game winning streak. As long as we keep winning ball games, we’re going to put ourselves in a great situation for our goals in the future.”