By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
Marching into arguably their biggest matchup of the season, the Billikens may be starting to peak at just the right moments.
They are on a two-game winning streak, getting their most complete efforts of the year in those two games, and to this point have shown significant improvements in both their offensive efficacy and defensive toughness. You could say that their previous two opponents aren’t overwhelmingly impressive (I wouldn’t), but it is undeniable that their play has improved dramatically since their let down against UMass.
You could also make the argument that this not the most crucial game of the year… you could reasonably say that those opportunities have already passed them. But that would be ignoring the context of the situation and dire need for a positive result.
Hitting the road for the final time this regular season, the Billikens make their first stop in Kingston, Rhode Island, to take on the Rams in a pivotal matchup against the #2, 12-3, team in the conference.
While the Bills have trended up, URI has struggled to the finish line and dropped in the likelihood of a once absolute At-Large bid. Being the victim of a string of injuries, the Rams have lost two of their last four and just barely escaped the lowly Fordham Rams in their last game out. Rams star senior center Cyril Langavine missed the matchup nursing an upper-body injury and guard Jeff Dowtin was less than full strength with a nagging ankle injury.
At this time of year, everybody is banged up in one way or another. But playing through clearly impacting injuries going into March is inopportune for everyone…let alone a team that still controls their own tournament destiny. If the Rams win all the games they are “supposed to,” including this one, they are in. If they drop even one game, they could be on the outside looking in.
It is even more inopportune for Rhode Island when you consider that one of their “must-win games” comes against one of the most physically pressing teams in the A-10 in the SLU Billikens.
The Bills may have caught a break going into Sunday afternoons affair. While according to Langavine and Dowtin, they are “absolutely going to play,” it can’t hurt the Bills to know that they are going to be playing against a banged-up bunch. These injury concerns will make the post battles between French and Langavine appointment television.
At their peak, Rhode Island has a murderer’s row of offensive talent. The Rams can field a group who can take you down from the outside in and can go on runs that will crush weaker teams’ spirits. Fatts Russell is one of the most exciting guards in the sport, and with a supporting cast of Dowtin, Langavine, Tyrese Martin, and Jacob Toppin make them unstoppable at times.
The key phrase there is “at their peak”. The URI Rams are incredibly talented but are not a group known for their efficiency. They rank 213th in the nation in three-point shooting efficiency and 273rd in two-point shooting percentage. They are the definition of a boom-or-bust team.
That does not mean they can’t be dangerous even when they aren’t clicking on all cylinders. Matchups in the A-10 can be more important than anything, and Fatts Russell is one of the most difficult guys to size up against in the league. At an undersized 5’10” officially, what Fatts lacks in size he makes up for in speed, handle, shooting, and decision making. It will be Yuri Collins’s responsibility to take on the Junior guard, who has struggled in the past with quicker, more drive reliant guards.
SLU’s matchups may get a little more friendly the further they go down the lineup. Rhode Island is an excellent perimeter defending team, but the Billikens don’t make their living out there. Rhode Island allows other teams to score at the rim at a 63.1% clip at the pest of times. With a sub-par, or at the very least, not 100% Langavine being the only genuinely game-changing interior defender in the lineup the Billikens will have to face, they can look to continue to dominate the glass and pound the paint to their advantage. Jordan Goodwin, Javonte Perkins, and Hasahn French will all look to take advantage of matchups that seem to be in their favor.
If the Rams can effectively force the Bills into shooting from the outside, via a commitment to the zone defense, that could be a problem. But I’d Imagine the Rams would not want to allow so many open shots from the outside when they defend that part of the floor so well, allowing opposing teams to shoot just 29% from outside in guarded shots. But if the Bills can become dominant on the inside like their prone to doing, it may be the only option.
Ultimately, it will come down to the Billikens play. SLU can keep themselves in the hunt for a double-bye should they win Sunday. Their odds continue to improve with every win, as other conference teams continue to falter to SLU’s benefit.
Passing will be the central key to their success. In the Billiken wins over VCU and Saint Joe’s, their ball movement on offense is what stuck out the most. Rather than having the ball stick at the top and running the clock down, the balls have gotten things moving and flowing more and more, allowing for more natural shots on their end.
“I think it’s that we’re passing the ball better.” Travis Ford said before the team departed for Rhode Island, “It’s the right passes at the right time where guys can finish shots that are good for them. One thing I’ve talked about is to share the ball. There’s no reason to take tough shots.”
There is a lot up for grabs Sunday afternoon. The Billikens will need a full breakout performance if they want to escape Kingston with a W. The Rams are broken but not bad, and they will want to defend their home court and continue their own trek to the big dance.