Jalen Crutcher’s G-League audition tape added another reel on Tuesday night. The senior from Memphis simply put the team on his back and led the Flyers to a surprising victory in this season’s first Arch Baron Cup. Crutcher hit threes from different zip codes, knocked down perimeter shots that defied reason and got buckets around the rim that seem to transcend the laws of physics. While Jalen Crutcher will more than likely never play an NCAA tournament game, his performance this season will be remembered long after his usefulness to our fanbase has run out. I never thought I’d say this so quickly after his leave, but it would appear that Scoochie Smith has been passed on the pantheon of UD point guards.
Like the inside of a pair of pants at a strip club, this season is very fluid. While it is true that Saint Louis was coming off a month long rest and might not be as well-oiled as they’d like, the Flyers still get credit for racking up an encouraging win. The Flyers get another crack at the Billikens on February 19th, Travis Ford’s team will be a different beast at that point — either they will have taken the form of the A10 kingpin they were predicted to be, or they will come into the Sweater Centre with a trail of bitter disappointment in their wake.
The goal of the rest of the season remains clear and obvious: find a way to finish in the top four of the league. What seemed impossible just two weeks ago has become a somewhat reasonable aim. Dayton currently finds itself in the middle of the A10 pack, with a bushel of games against the upper tier, however you want to define it, remaining. While the Flyers’ recent play has been a push in the right direction, the overall shitty quality of the league looms larger. This season is the first year I can think of where a loss, any loss, wouldn’t cause astonishment (I mean St. Joe’s has to win at some point, right? Right? Fordham has, ahem, already proven that anything can happen in an empty gym with a televised audience smaller than most YouTube videos).
So we proceed accordingly. Simply picture Dayton as the current sixth place team in say….the America East Conference, the UMass-Lowell River Hawks. Dayton is in the same exact boat as UMass-Lowell, hoping to peak at the right time and roll off three (or four) wins in the conference tournament to strike gold. The River Hawks and the Flyers could win out, doesn’t matter. Unless they win their respective league tourneys, nothing else matters. So there you have it, UMass-Lowell and Dayton, brothers in arms.
But enough about UMass-Lowell, the Rhody Rams are coming to town.
Fatts Russell flirted with entering the NBA Draft last spring, there is nothing more valuable in this world than false confidence. Fortunately for coach David Cox, Fatts decided that there were still 400 shots left in his arsenal, use them or lose them. Russell’s return stemmed the dreary tide URI faced last season, when three student-athletes (Jacob Toppin-Kentucky, Tyrese Martin-UConn, and Mekhi Long-Old Dominion) decided life in the Ocean State just didn’t agree with them anymore.
The departure of Toppin and Martin were particularly harsh blows to the program. With them in the fold, Rhody would have been mentioned in the same breath as SLU during the preseason. Without them, well, the Rams are 6-4, slumming it with the likes of Dayton and UMass-Amherst. URI was ambitious in its scheduling, matching up with Arizona State, Seton Hall and Wisconsin during the non-conference portion of their schedule (the Rams were able to muster a W against the Hall). Like Dayton, Rhody has essentially played to its competition, games have come down to an average of five points per contest in A10 play. Accordingly, the Rams 6-4 conference record is not a shocking development.
Russell remains one of the most entertaining players to watch in league history, for all the wrong reasons. He is a volume scorer in the Allen Iverson mold, shoot until the wheels fall off. On the season, Fatts is shooting 33.5% from the floor, 25% from three and, inexplicably, 85% from the charity stripe. Make no mistake, Russell will get his points — even if it’s through pointless accumulation in garbage time. That being said, Fatts is not a complete wash on the floor, clearly his positives outweigh his negatives. He is a terror on the defensive end of the floor and an underrated distributor of the ball. While the Rams need his point production to win, there’s a happy medium. Rhode Island is winless in games where Russell scores more than 30% of the team’s points.
Matt will provide further edification on “Bad Fatts” vs. “Good Fatts.”
As Blackburn reported, after the VCU game I was a broken man. Seeing the Flyers put forth an offensive rating of 42 points per 100 possessions in the first half and an offensive rating of 66 for the entire game was disheartening. VCU’s vice grip defense squeezed the life out of the Flyers on the court and my fandom off it. I saw smart guys like Tommy Egg’s on twitter talking about how Dayton could still win the A10 tournament and felt contempt and disgust to them for being so naïve. Hope had left me.
Admittedly, I felt like a sucker as I turned on CBS Sports Tuesday. I may have lost the required desire to wax poetic regarding advanced stats but if I could watch Chris Alvarez and James Cripe for a season, I could see this Flyers squad battle for the most coveted rivalry trophy in sports. Despite Saint Louis being off for a month due to Covid, I was not optimistic about UD’s chances but still tuned in, nonetheless.
40 game minutes later, I was RTing every meme Chip Mikesell and the official UD Basketball twitter was putting out. We’re back, baby! VCU was just a bad matchup of an incredibly good defense combined with an unusually bad shooting night! After that big win over SLU, the Flyers will surely roll the next team and every remaining on their schedule. Who is the next opponent, by the way? Top 35 defense Rhode Island? Shit.
Like their Ram counterparts in Richmond, Rhody’s defensive rating is in elite territory. Their 92.7 points per 100 possessions is 32nd in the country. However, Rhode Island’s stout defense doesn’t rely on the unrelenting ball pressure a la “HAVOC!!!!!” as VCU does. Rather, the New England version of Rams protect the rim as if it were a cannoli from their grandmother in Providence. Their 12.5% block rate is 34th among all Division 1 sides. Rhody opponents have scored 1.05 points per possession at the rim, well below the 1.18 PPP average for A10 teams. Four Rhode Island rotation players have a block rate of 3.5% or higher. Makhel Mitchell’s 8.8% block rate is 40th of all players. It certainly won’t be easy for the Flyers to score at the rim against the Rams, though there is some comfort in that field goal attempts at the rim make up the lowest proportion of attempts the Flyers take compared to 2-point jumpers and threes.
Rhode Island may shut down attempts at the rim with extreme prejudice, but they aren’t incredibly prolific at creating turnovers. Guards like Fatts Russell and Jeremy Sheppard do a decent job picking up a few steals a game, both averaging above a 2.5% steal rate this season. The Rams steal rate overall is just slightly above average at 9.8% and their non-steal turnover rate on defense sits at 8.5% which is ranked sub-300 nationally. Dayton faced near constant ball pressure against VCU and Saint Louis in their last two games but were able to limit turnovers in their win against SLU. Hopefully the Flyers’ turnover rate will continue to trend downward.
Given the ferocity Rhode Island defend the paint and the size they possess, it is no surprise that most of their offense this season so far have been attempts at the rim. 43.8% of all the Rams field goal attempts have come from attempts at the hoop. Despite the largest chunk of shots coming in close from Rhody, they aren’t especially efficient scoring there. From there Rhode Island are averaging 1.17 points per possession thus far, which you know by now is slightly below conference average. Big bodies like Makhel Mitchell and Antwan Walker aren’t the cause of Rhody’s overall mediocre numbers, as all three of the above are hitting at least 62% of their field goal attempts at the rim and are taking more than half of their shots from there. Instead it is human Rube Goldberg machine Fatts Russell that is nearly single-handedly bringing down most of the efficiency metrics for the Rams.
There’s the cliché in college basketball about players on rival teams that seem like they are there longer than the typical four-year stint of a player. As a fan of a team in the same conference as Rhode Island, I say long may Fatts Russell reign. Many following the Atlantic 10 will talk about “Good Fatts” and “Bad Fatts” when it comes to his play. From what I can tell, “Good Fatts” has only graced us with his presence in a five-game stretch in 2019 (that admittedly help lead Rhody to an A10 tournament title). Since then, it’s seemingly been more “Bad Fatts” than a chip shop in Scotland (Google deep fried Mars Bar).
This season, Fatts is averaging 15.9 points a game on 34%/25%/85% shooting. His 27.5% usage rate is 6% higher than anyone else on the Rams, which confirms anyone with eyes suspicion that he’s a volume shooter. He seems to think he’s a better finisher at the rim that he is, as he has taken 40.2% of his shots at the rim but has made less than half of these. He’s also continued to be a streaky shooter from deep, with more than a third of his field goal attempts have come from beyond the perimeter but he’s only hit 23.8% of them. Remember when sentient cliché robot Jon Rothstein said that Fatts Russell was an all-American candidate and if “you flip-flopped Fatts Russell and Jalen Crutcher, Dayton would be the consensus favorite to win the national title”? This season, Jalen’s 45.1% rate from three is higher than Fatts 38% effective field goal rate.
If you flip flopped Fatts Russell and Jalen Crutcher, Dayton would be the consensus favorite to win the national title.
Have to take into consideration how much easier Obi Toppin makes for others. https://t.co/MuqWunzII0
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 5, 2020
Fatts was limited to 14 minutes in Rhody’s win over La Salle and missed their win over Fordham entirely due to injury. I won’t draw the conclusion that they won because his time on the court was limited, as Rhody’s fast pace means Fatts gets extra chances to cash in on some of those volume shots. Russell has consistently been able to get to the free throw line frequently throughout his career and does well cashing in those freebies, hitting 84.9% of his free throw attempts this season. If Dayton can avoid sending Fatts to the line, it is more likely than not they will be able to limit his impact on the game.
Defensively, Rhody is about as good as it gets in the Atlantic Ten. While the Rams foul more than is recommended, and this certainly isn’t a vintage URI rebounding squad, they guard the paint and perimeter with equal intensity — UD will have to work for every basket they get. Is there a Fatts/Crutcher rivalry? I don’t know, maybe it’s something that has built in our heads since the unfortunate tweet from Rothstein. Regardless, that’s the matchup to watch — who will be the more efficient scorer? My money is on Crutch, his form over the past four games (Ok, we aren’t counting VCU) has been just about as good as it gets for any Dayton player not named Obi Toppin.
Spoiler alert, this will be yet another close one. Flyers 66, Rams 64. #LOWD