With the Arch Baron Cup officially behind us, the Gem City turns to what should be the most important conference test for your Dayton Flyers. Rhode Island, believe it or not, is just a game behind UD in the league standings. While the Flyer Fanbase has been making plans for Atlanta (seriously stop that it’s bad luck), the Kingston Rams have quietly run off ten league wins in a row. The first week of January was a rough one for Rhode Island, David Cox’s club suffered what could be a debilitating loss to Brown and opened up their Atlantic Ten account with an eight-point loss at home against Richmond (watch out for Richmond btw).
Since then URI has been flawless. Ten wins by an average margin of 12.2 points. Included in those ten wins? A season sweep against Virginia Commonwealth. With the A10 likely hovering between 2-3 teams (my guess is two) in the NCAA Tournament, it would be a real shame if URI received a bid over VCU due to their head-to-head matchups. As of this writing, Bracket Matrix has Rhode Island safely in the Dance, slotted as a ten seed if the 68 team field was drawn up today. Bracketologists has them projected safely in the field as well.
A win over Dayton would all but solidify URI’s place in the tournament, and sufficiently wipe off the stench of the Brown loss in January. As we said on the podcast, Rhody is playing with house money tonight. They get a crack at a top ten win, a victory over Dayton not only puts URI in first place, it gives them a major resume booster. To put it plainly, taking down the Flyers would give Rhode Island the best win of any team in the A10, which doesn’t sit well with me. I’m downright upset about this.
Rhode Island fans had reason to be excited coming into the season. All five starters returned and, as was pointed out to me by a Rhody fan last spring, there is no way URI could shoot the ball from the perimeter worse than they did during the 2018-19 season. The Rams were anemic from the three-point line last season, converting just 28% of their attempts from behind the arc (ranking them 351/353 teams). While Cox’s team isn’t exactly lighting it up this season, currently knocking down 32.8% of their threes, URI, as a whole, are a much-improved offensive team.
A major difference this season has been URI’s pace of play. The Rams have an average possession length of sixteen seconds, 39th fastest in the country, trailing just VCU in the Atlantic Ten. Rhode Island’s offensive efficiency and pace has lead to an average of 75 points per game — 3rd in the league behind Richmond (75.1) and Dayton (81.7). While the offensive approach has shifted, what hasn’t changed is the Rams’ emphasis on crashing the offensive boards, protecting the rim and getting to the foul-line.
It’s been the Fatts Russell (20.3 ppg/4.3 apg/3.0 spg) show all year long in Kingston, the lil’ guy has improved his shooting stroke immensely. Russell shot a heinous 22% from the three-point line a season ago, Fatts has improved to 38% this season. So, whereas last year’s version of Fatts would often shoot Rhody out of a game, this year’s Fatts is spearheading the Rams to victories. If it wasn’t for Obi Toppin, Russell would be the surefire player of the year in the A10. Jeff Dowtin (14.2 ppg/3.8 rpg) is finally a senior and while his production might have slipped a little bit, he’s still a major cog in the Rhody machine. Dowtin is a lanky fella, averaging an impressive 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio over his career. Cyril Langevine (10.1 ppg/10.2 rpg) should strike fear in the hearts of all UD fans. He’s a bulky, physical forward — the type of matchup that has historically posed problems for Dayton. Jacob Toppin (4.8 ppg/4.1 rpg) is Obi’s brother, you might have heard this before. Tyrese Martin (12.4 ppg/6.7 rpg) gets lost in the mix, he’s another rangy forward who rebounds well and can step out and knock down shots.
Over the past few weeks, the Flyers have had a few matchups with teams that are physical, rebound well, and try muck up the ball-movement centric Flyers. While it wasn’t always pretty, Dayton was able to dispatch with all of these gritty sides. While each of these teams had some success frustrating UD, typically a fatal flaw among these sides saw them end the game with a loss. Rhode Island is another team that hits the board hard while playing great defense. However, it seems clear looking at their numbers that Rhody are a step above these recent Flyer foes.
On the surface, the Rhody offense seems more potent than the likes of VCU, Duquesne, and Saint Louis. Their 106.84 Offensive Rating, which measures points scored per 100 possessions, is 4th in the conference. When we look at some of their other numbers though, it is a bit puzzling how they got there. They shoot a below average 32.8% from the perimeter and 48.1% from 2-point field goals. They don’t really score it efficiently anywhere, scoring 1.13 points per shot at the rim, 0.63 points per shot on mid-range jumpers, and 0.98 points per shot on threes. All of these are well below the average A10 team.
Where the Rhody offense does do well is getting to the free throw line. They have a 36.4% free throw to field goal attempt ratio, which puts them 83rd among all D1 teams. While compared to Saint Louis, they are peak Mark Price at the line, Rhody aren’t great hitting those free throws though, only converting 68.9% of them. The volume of free throws they take becomes a factor during games though.
Rhody’s offense really becomes potent when it is playing off their defense. This season, Rhody has scored 381 points off of transition opportunities, the second highest in the conference (behind Dayton). With a 10.2% block rate and 12.1% steal rate, the latter of which is ranked 11th nationally, they have plenty of opportunities to get out on transition. With a 31.1% offensive rebound rate as well; Rhody has done well this season using their strength and athleticism to help them get out on transition and creating second opportunities on offense.
It is also worth noting that in addition to lofty turnover and points allowed metrics, teams have struggled shooting from the perimeter this season against Rhode Island. Through the weekend, Rhody’s opponents have only hit 28.2% of their threes. They allow an average amount of attempts from deep, with their opponents taking 37.8% of their field goal attempts from the perimeter. We’ve discussed almost ad nauseam to this point that there is a bit of variance in 3-point defense. Teams don’t have much to do with the percentage of threes their opponents make, but do have more to do with the number of attempts they take. Rhody could have been the benefactors of opponents getting some bad shot making luck so far this season, perhaps the Flyers can introduce them to our friend regression. Dayton has been fairly consistent in their shooting from behind the 3-point line this season, hitting 37.1% of attempts this season. If they can hit threes at the average, it could be enough to give UD the advantage Tuesday.
All season, I’ve been occasionally tweeting out a graph showing the change in true shooting percentage and usage rate for players in the A10 who also played in the league last season. Our own Trey Landers has the highest improvement in true shooting percentage from this year compared to last at 16.1%. Right behind Trey is Rhode Island’s Fatts Russell. Fatts has seen his true shooting percentage improve by 12.4% since last season, largely in part to heading to the basket more. Last season, Fatts only took 37.4% of his field goal attempts at the rim and only averaged 0.93 points per shot on those attempts. So far in this campaign, Fatts has taken 41.8% of his attempts at the rim while averaging an even 1 point per shot on those attempts.
Last season’s version of Fatts Russell was definitely what George Costanza would call a “chucker.” With a seemingly unending well of confidence, Fatts took 40.6% of his shots last season from the perimeter despite only hitting 22.3% of them. That earned him an incredibly bad 0.67 points per shot from those attempts. Like the annoying girl who went to Spain in the summer, junior year Fatts Russell has matured and has a new outlook on both life and the three-point shot. Only accounting for 35.7% of his shots, Fatts is averaging a much more respectable 1.13 points per shot from deep this season. Last season, opposing guards could give Fatts acres of space on the perimeter and dare him to shoot. A much improved Fatts Russell means that the Dayton guards will need to be wary of both his ability to drive to the basket and hit on long range shots. We have also made everyone aware at this point that above-average guard play typically leads to a 20+ point night against this Dayton defense.
Finally, we’ll have a quick word on the potential “Toppin-Bowl.” Not to rain on the lazy narratives the CBS Sports Network has been spending a week trying to create, but younger brother Jacob Toppin only has a usage rate of 13.9% and is averaging just 18.9 minutes a game. While David Cox and Rhody will certainly use their depth at the wing spot to try and stop the unstoppable, Obi will most likely be seeing a lot of 12th year senior Cyril Langevine. The 6’8” forward is ranked in the top 100 in the nation in offensive rebound rate, defensive rebound rate, and block percentage. Langevine loves to be physical and work in the paint, seen in his 4.8 fouls drawn per 40 minutes and 60.3% free throw rate. Similar to Hasahn French though, I am begging Anthony Grant and company to selectively foul the 48.9% free throw shooter in Langevine. If not for the advantage it will provide for the Flyers, then for Tom Eggemeier’s sanity.
Rhode Island is going to need a steady diet of Fatts Russell buckets to have a chance in the Sweater Centre. This game could very easily come down to UD’s three-point shooting. Dayton is currently the best three-point shooting while Rhode Island leads the conference in three-point defense. This seems significant. Fatts Russell scoring 20+ is obviously a necessity for Rhody to have a chance tonight, but the play of Cyril Langevine might be just as essential. The 6’8″ senior has saved some of his best performances for Dayton, his physical play on both ends could be a difference maker.
Make no mistake, URI is impervious to the LOWDness of the Decibel Dungeon. The Rams have won three of their last four trips to Dayton and refuse to be intimidated by the red-faced Sweaters. Dayton is undefeated at home this season, Rhody has yet to lose a road conference game. SOMETHING HAS TO GIVE! Dayton wins a close one, 75-70.
Tom Blackburn is a proud U. o' D. alum. He loses faith in humanity one day at a time, but not in you, you seem like you are all kinds of alright. Charter member of the T-Man fanclub.