UMass basketball hosting Rhode Island looking to snap 3-game losing streak

  • Noah Fernandes and the UMass men’s basketball team will aim to snap a three-game losing streak when Rhode Island visits the Mullins Center at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Noah Fernandes and the UMass men’s basketball team will aim to snap a three-game losing streak when Rhode Island visits the Mullins Center at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Micheal Steadman and the UMass men’s basketball team will aim to snap a three-game losing streak when Rhode Island visits the Mullins Center at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/14/2022 7:08:30 PM
Modified: 1/14/2022 7:07:38 PM

Which gear the UMass men’s basketball team’s game against Rhode Island is played in will go a long way to determining who wins the rivalry matchup.

The Minutemen would prefer a faster pace with one of the higher tempos in the country, while the Rams play at one of the nation’s 100 slowest paces.

“Whose style of play wins out? Trying to get in a slugfest in the half court with how big they are and how physical they are, that doesn’t play into our hands,” UMass coach Matt McCall said.

The Minutemen (7-8, 0-3 Atlantic 10) have lost their past three games, their longest skid since dropping four in a row in mid January of 2020. No single issue has plagued UMass during the streak, but it has allowed at least 77 points in all three games.

“It’s been a little bit of whack-a-mole with what we have to improve, it’s not just one thing,” UMass guard Rich Kelly said. “But probably the defensive end of the floor is our biggest area of improvement.”

The Minutemen have the worst scoring defense in the A-10, allowing 78.2 points per game, and opponents make 48.4 percent of their shots against UMass, the highest mark in the league. They were able to balance out some of those deficiencies earlier in the season with a dynamic offense. UMass is making 40.7 percent of its 3s, the fourth-best mark in the country, and scoring 77.9 points per game.

The Rams, which visit the Mullins Center at 4:30 p.m. Saturday (USA), have a more balanced approach. They’ve build the second-stingiest defense in the conference, which allows just 62.6 points per game and 37.2 percent shooting from the field.

Rhode Island (10-4, 1-1) marries that with efficiency and balance on offense. They only average 71.1 points per game (ninth in A-10) but shoot 48.8 percent from the floor (second in the league behind Davidson) and 37.6 percent from 3 (third in A-10).

Seven Rams average at least seven points per game led by Jeremy Sheppard at 11.6 per contest. He’s one of three Rhode Island players in double figures: Makhel Mitchel (11.3) and his twin brother Makhi Mitchell (10).

“They’ve got unbelievable balance across the board,” McCall said.

The Mitchell twins are 6-foot-9 (Makhi) and 6-foot-10 (Makhel). Makhel ranks third in the league blocking 2.6 shots per game. Rhode Island leads the A-10 in blocks as a team, swatting 6.36 shots per contest.

The Minutemen are aiming to not let them leverage that advantage inside.

“Can we keep them out of the lane and can we keep them of the backboard? Too many times in the game vs. Davidson we allowed them to throw and catch the ball. We’ve got to make catches difficult,” McCall said. “The ball cannot get to he paint. If we can keep the ball out of the paint, we’re going to have success.”

UMass exchanged blows with the Wildcats for most of their Tuesday road loss, but couldn’t recover after allowing an early run in the second half.

“We had a certain feel against Davidson that we hadn’t had in a while, a certain intensity and togetherness that was at another level,” Kelly said. “That’s exciting in the fact that we can play a borderline top 25 even for 36 minutes, but the game’s 40 minutes long.”

The Minutemen were without sharpshooter C.J. Kelly against the Wildcats because of knee swelling. He will be a game time decision Saturday against the Rams after getting a chance to rest it and rehab this week. C.J. Kelly didn’t practice Friday.

Rich Kelly emphasized the defensive intensity the Minutemen showed in practice Friday.

“We’re responding exactly how I hope we would respond, which is coming together, focusing on the process,” he said.

That process looked better against Davidson than in the previous game against Duquesne, a home loss that ended UMass’ perfect start at the Mullins Center.

“I appreciate where these guys are at, their attitude, their effort,” McCall said. “They understand there’s a lot of basketball left to be played. It’s just going to take one (win) to get this headed in the right direction.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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