By the time Saturday’s matchup with Western Kentucky tips off, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team will have gone 15 days without a game, the longest stretch of the season.
It was a welcome break for the Rams, and it wasn’t without some action. They’re a little healthier after the grind of the early part of non-conference play and they’ll welcome in Georgetown transfer Antwan Walker, who sat out the first semester and is expected to make his debut on Saturday. They’ve also lost freshman guard Gregory Hammond, who has put his name into the NCAA transfer portal. Sophomore forward Dana Tate remains out on an indefinite suspension. He was not at practice Tuesday, when the Rams held media availability.
From that reset, URI heads into its final three games of non-conference play before it’s on to the Atlantic 10 slate. The Rams will take on Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Brown.
“It’s definitely been good to have some time off, be to yourself a little bit but also get in the gym,” senior guard Jeff Dowtin said. “We’ve still been working out. We had a good scrimmage against each other a couple of days ago, to play against each other and get our rhythm back. The break has been good.”
The Rams were riding high into the break, thanks to a rivalry win over Providence on Dec. 6 at the Ryan Center, which pushed their record to 6-3. The time off allowed for a little longer celebration than usual, but they were focused on the future and on getting healthy. Fatts Russell, in particular, said after the Providence game that he was banged up and looking forward to a little rest.
“I was really beat up,” Russell said. “My wrist, what happened in the Providence game. My knee, in the Nicholls State game. I had twisted my ankle in practice. So I was a little banged up, but I’m a warrior. I fight through it.”
Russell has been playing the best basketball of his career but isn’t worried about a blip in the rhythm.
“I was happy to have the break,” he said. “I know I’m better at 100 percent anyway. Just getting back in the gym, working on mechanics and getting ready for Saturday.”
URI held an intra-squad scrimmage last weekend to stay sharp, while honing in on key areas for improvement. The 6-3 mark includes no missteps, but no major quality wins, either. URI will have to make its push in A-10 play, while hoping to keep avoiding speed bumps as they close non-conference play. The team checked in at No. 72 in the first NET rankings, a key metric in NCAA Tournament selection.
“You have to pay attention. It came out and it’s national news,” Cox said. “But we’re just focused, truthfully, on the next game. We’ve got to focus on getting better. We have a small margin for error. Obviously, this league is very good this year. I expect there will be three or four teams that make it in, but we don’t have as many chances as the power five teams. So it’s a small, small margin of error. Our focus right now is getting better.”
Western Kentucky comes to Kingston without star center Charles Bassey, a potential NBA draft pick who suffered a season-ending injury Dec. 7 against Arkansas. The Hilltoppers went on to win that game over the Razorbacks and are now 7-3.
“They’re a very talented team, a well coached team,” Cox said. “That’s a very unfortunate loss for that young man and that program – prayers to him and his family – but when he went down, they still rallied to come up with a victory against Arkansas, who was 8-0 at the time. It’s a very talented team. They’ve got perimeter players who can really put the ball in the basket. It’s another good challenge for us.”
Walker is slated to suit up for the first time against the Hilltoppers, a month-and-a-half after his waiver request to play at the start of the first semester was denied by the NCAA. The 6-foot-7 forward has been practicing with the Rams since last season.
“It’ll be a limited role obviously on Saturday,” Cox said. “He’s got to get his feet wet. We’ve played nine games and we’ve got a pretty solid rotation. The young guys have come on. We’ll ease into it.”
Tate was suspended for a violation of team rules before the Providence game.
“He’s still out, working on himself,” Cox said. “We hope to have him back shortly.”
Hammond appeared in four games for the Rams this season, averaging 1.3 points and 3.3 minutes per game. He was 1-for-3 from the field in 13 total minutes this season, hitting a 3-point shot at Maryland. The Louisiana native was a three-star recruit out of high school.