URI opens A-10 tournament play on Thursday

When Atlantic 10 Tournament play opens, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team will be on the same floor where it delivered one of its best performances of the season, against an opponent that was the victim of its last good stretch of basketball.

URI is hoping to pull something – anything – from that backdrop.

Losers of six of their last seven games, the 10th-seeded Rams will look to find a little postseason magic in Richmond, Virginia, beginning with a second-round matchup against seventh-seeded Dayton on Thursday at 3:30 p.m.

“Tough regular season run,” URI head coach David Cox said. “It’s now behind us. We start with a clean slate just like everybody else. We feel comfortable and confident at this stage, despite the season that we’ve had down the stretch.”

With the A-10 moving the tournament from Brooklyn to Richmond, the Rams will be back at the Siegel Center, where they beat VCU – the league’s eventual No. 2 seed – in January. URI’s last win was against Dayton, in a dramatic comeback from 18 points down in the second half.

Rediscovering the formula from either of those victories would serve the Rams well. The limp to the finish sent URI to a 10-14 record and its first sub-.500 regular season since the 2013-14 campaign. The ups and downs of the season’s first three months settled into a low point as the Rams lost four straight, rallied for the win over Dayton, then dropped two more in a row to George Washington and Duquesne.

The stingy defense that has long been a constant for the program has lately deserted the Rams. They were ranked among the top 35 teams in the country by KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric at the end of January but have tumbled 30 spots since then. George Washington and Duquesne both shot better than 50 percent against the Rams in their wins last week, the first opponents to do so all season.

“Transition defense has been poor. Our one-on-one defense has been poor. And our ball-screen coverages have been OK,” Cox said. “If we plan on being an elite defensive team – which we were for the majority of this season – all three of those areas have to tighten up.”

A boost at the offensive end will also be necessary with senior guard Jeremy Sheppard expected to be sidelined by an ankle injury for Thursday’s game, at least. Fatts Russell may be able to pick up the slack, if there’s any room for the senior guard to do more. Battling injuries all season, he helped will the Rams to victory against Dayton and was a rebound away from a triple-double against George Washington. If the Rams can get hot, Russell will likely be providing a spark.

“The last couple of weeks, he has been going really hard in practice,” Cox said. “He’s been extremely vocal. It’s typical of a senior who realizes this is close to the end. If he continues to play as hard as he’s playing and as well as he’s playing, and if he can bring some guys along with him, it would be great for us.”

Dayton enters Thursday’s game on a high note after surprising first-place St. Bonaventure on the final day of the regular season. The victory – along with St. Joseph’s win over Richmond – dramatically changed tournament seeding at the last minute.

“We came into [Monday] thinking we were going to play possibly three teams and none of them was Dayton,” Cox said. “That’s just kind of the way this season is working and the way the A-10 had to make these standings work. It kind of is what it is. What I do know is we didn’t play well enough to earn a top-four spot or a top-eight spot. The guys need to take that kind of chip on our shoulder and be ready to go out there and earn some respect.”

URI’s comeback win over the Flyers was part of a season split with last year’s A-10 champs. The Rams had a halftime lead Jan. 30 at UD Arena before fading in the second half of an 11-point loss, which started URI’s slide.

“Out of the 80 minutes, we’ve played 30 or 40 quality minutes against them,” Cox said. “They’ve been in all honesty the better team – the better coached team and they’ve played better. We’ve got to tighten a lot of things up in order for us to even have a chance.”

Positive signs have been hard to spot, but Cox has seen persistence all season and is hoping another dose of it yields a turnaround when the Rams need it most.

“I think that this team, this group of guys, has kind of gone through a lot throughout the season. It’s made them stronger as a group, together. We just have not been able to show that in a 40-minute basketball game,” Cox said. “When I say confident, obviously not saying we’re an over-confident team. Nor should we necessarily be flying with confidence when we’ve lost that many games. But based on where we’re at, based on the pandemic, based on losing those games, based on what we’ve been through as a group, this is a tight-knit group, a confident group and a group that’s ready to go out and fight like we have all season.”

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