Commentary

Rhode Island needs to finish strong

Updated: February 26, 2010, 7:23 PM ET
By Brian MacPherson | Special to ESPNBoston.com

KINGSTON, R.I. -- The seat-back television screens on their Friday morning JetBlue flight gave the Rhode Island Rams more than a few viewing options as they flew to upstate New York a day in advance of their Saturday afternoon tilt with St. Bonaventure.

One in-flight viewing option the Rams didn't have -- and didn't need -- was the scouting film on St. Bonaventure. The Rams did a thorough film review on Tuesday and again before practice on Thursday, taking time to watch what the Bonnies' 3-point shooters and offensive rebounders have done so effectively in their past two games. Coach Jim Baron even made a last-second decision on Thursday to start practice with film study rather than end with it, making sure his players' primary focus was on the scouting report.

That's something Rhode Island hadn't been able to do during a three-game losing streak that dropped the Rams from third place in the A-10 to sixth. A Rams team that lost just three of its first 22 games lost three straight in an eight-day span, first to Richmond at home and then to Temple and St. Louis on the road, before beating Fordham 101-75 in their most recent game.

It started to look suspiciously like last season (when the Rams lost their season finale and again in the first round of the A-10 tournament, winding up in the NIT) or the season before that (when the Rams lost seven of their last nine and again in the first round of the A-10 tournament, winding up in the NIT).

[+] EnlargeKeith Cothran
Michael Tureski/Icon SMIGuard Keith Cothran's average of 15 points per game leads the URI Rams this season.

Rhode Island did give itself a little bit of a cushion with a 19-3 start that included wins at Davidson and Boston College and at home against Northeastern and Providence. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected the Rams as an at-large No. 11 seed in his latest bracket even after the three-game losing streak. But something had to change -- and quick -- if the Rams were going to avoid playing themselves out of the NCAA tournament field.

Part of the issue? Film study fell by the wayside and the team seemed to lose focus on the defensive scouting report, contributing to those three straight losses in which the Rams' opponents shot better than 50 percent from the field.

"We weren't paying attention to detail and the scouting reports and the film and guys' strengths and what guys like to do," said guard Keith Cothran, whose 15 points per game lead the Rams this season. "We didn't really pay too much attention to detail. We were just trying to hurry up and get back to the next game, but it kept biting us."

"We can't lock down and focus on what we need to do if we don't [see the film]," forward Lamonte Ulmer said. "Some people are visual learners. Some people pick it up right away. Some of the team probably couldn't visualize what to do on defense and how to get around picks or screens."

Film study doesn't come naturally to everyone, after all.

"Oh, man," Cothran said with a sheepish smile. "My first film, I was dozing off in there."

At the breakneck pace Rhode Island plays, film study and scouting reports become even more important. If the Rams are to push the tempo and make opposing teams uncomfortable, they have to know precisely what those opponents are going to do when they're uncomfortable.

Not only did URI make time for a little extra film study before a decisive win over Fordham on Saturday, but the Rams made time for a team meeting, too. They sat down for two hours to talk about focus and about sticking to their principles.

"We're a running team, so that's what we look for -- get the ball out on the break and pressure defense on the full court," guard Marquis Jones said. "We like to press. We like to look for steals. We weren't doing that on a consistent basis the last couple of games."

Rhode Island's run-and-gun attack has it among the Atlantic 10 leaders in scoring (77.5 points per game, second in the conference), field goal percentage (45.5 percent, third in the conference) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3, second in the conference). Three players average double figures, and each of the Rams' top six scorers are shooting at least 41 percent from the field.

Cothran, relegated to the bench in the second half last season after hyperextending his knee, has started 25 of 26 games this season and is averaging 15 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game.

Everything came down to one shot for Cothran at home against Richmond two weeks ago, perhaps the toughest to take of the Rams' three straight losses. The senior guard had an open 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the game but missed it, watching it rim out.

Cothran watched the film of that shot only once. He's ready to put it in his rearview mirror.

"That same night, I dwelled on it the whole night," he said. "The next day, I got in here and got some shots up, and I was over it. I probably forced it. I rushed it a little bit. But I learned from it, and, right now, I'm thinking about this game right here against St. Bonaventure. We've got to get this one."

Brian MacPherson is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. His e-mail address is brianrmacpherson@gmail.com.

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