It's a battle of first versus worst in the topsy-turvy Atlantic 10 Conference Wednesday night, as UMass (16-5, 5-2 A10) travels to Kingston, Rhode Island to take on the Rams (4-18, 1-6 A10) at the Thomas M. Ryan Center at 7 p.m EDT. (TV: COX Rhode Island/Radio: UMass Sports Network)
No foe is more familiar to UMass basketball and its fans then the Rhode Island Rams. Since the two teams first met in 1908, the Minutemen have more games played against (136) and more wins against (79-57) the Rams, than against any other program. UMass has dominated the series lately winning 35 of the past 48 games, including a series sweep in 2010. The Minutemen have been even better than that since 2008, winning seven of nine matchups.
Last season the Minutemen earned a pair of victories, including a 66-60 victory at Rhode Island, one of just six home losses all season for the Rams. Defense keyed the victory, as the Minutemen held Rhode Island to just 29.3 percent shooting and 1-of-19 from behind the arc. Former UMass great Anthony Gurley led the team with 16 points and he and sophomore Raphiael Putney (11 points) led a 23-6 run in the second half that gave UMass the edge.
UMass is coming off its best win of the season Saturday, when they earned a 72-59 victory over Rick Majerus and St. Louis in a battle of first-place teams. The Minutemen used a 22-5 run towards the end of the first half to open up the game and create a 45-point first half outburst, the most points allowed in a half all season by the league-leading Bilikens defense. Despite a strong St. Louis run that cut the deficit to five, UMass held on behind Putney's third career double-double. For his 22 point, 10 rebound effort, Putney was named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Week Monday.
While UMass was busy thumping St. Louis Saturday, Rhode Island made some noise of their own as they downed another team at the top of the conference standings (Dayton) on the road, to earn their first A10 win. Sophomore guard Billy Baron recorded a career-high 25 points to lead the Rams, as he knocked down four 3-pointers and 7-of-8 free throw attempts. Freshmen forward Jonathan Holton added his third straight double-double (16 points, 11 rebounds) as the Rams earned their fifth straight win over Dayton and snapped their six-game losing streak.
While UMass is having a breakout season and has had to deal with little adversity (Cady LaLanne injury), the Rams have have struggled all season long and are without leading scorer Jamal Wilson indefinitely. Rhode Island suspended the senior guard on December 27 for breaking team rules. He was averaging 17.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game for the Rams.
Even without Wilson, the Rams have six players averaging nine points or more but they sit dead last in the Atlantic 10 in scoring defense (75.5 points allowed). Add in some poor 3-point shooting (27.5 percent as a team-14 in Atlantic 10) and the slow maturation of freshmen point guard Mike Powell (3.9 assist per game, 3.3 turnovers per game) and the Rams have struggled to win close games all season long.
Key To The Game: Rhode Island's not a team that UMass will neccessarily be able to beat up inside, so the onus will be on Chaz Williams, Jesse Morgan and Freddie Riley to control the pace and make good decisions. Look for Williams to try to take advantage of the more inexperienced Powell and try to get him to make poor decisions. Morgan and Riley will need to hit their shots, they should have plenty of open looks, against a Rams squad that allows opponents to shoot 48 percent from the field.
Prediction: Heading into Saturday this game looked like an easy W on the schedule but the Rams have been steadily improving since suspending Wilson. UMass might come out a little flat after the great atmosphere and win they grabbed on Saturday but the Minutemen know they can't afford to drop this game and should easily cruise to an eight to 10 point victory.
UMass 83, Rhode Island 71