#7 Rhode Island Rams vs. #10 Oklahoma Sooners
Thursday, March 15, 12:15 p.m., CBS
Rhode Island Rams (25-7, 15-3) – A10 at-large
Player to Watch: Jeff Dowtin (9.7 PPG, 5.5 APG, 3.2 RPG)
Jeff Dowtin may only be a sophomore in a mid-major league, but he has proven himself to be a premier point guard for Danny Hurley’s club. Seniors E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell get all the pub for this Rhode Island team, but Dowtin is who makes this engine go. He took over for the injured Jarvis Garrett toward the back end of last season, and has not given up the starting point guard spot since. Dowtin is a complete offensive player and plays with a pace and poise that is well beyond his years. He had 23 points as a freshman in Rhode Island’s tournament opener against Creighton last year; a game the Rams won. He isn’t needed for that kind of scoring output on this year’s team, but Dowtin must play well if Rhode Island wants to make it out of the first weekend for the first time in 20 years.
X-Factor: Rhode Island must make free throws
Rhode Island shoots just 71% from the FT line as a team, which ranks 202nd in Division I. In the A10 championship game, the Rams were 9-17 from the charity stripe and lost to Davidson by one point. This game should be extremely close if Trae Young plays well, and Rhode Island has to convert from the FT line to win. Oklahoma fouls an average of 17.1 times per game and Rhode Island has a number of aggressive guards who like to attack the basket, so getting to the line shouldn’t be difficult; it’s knocking down their free throws that has given Rhode Island fits all year.
Oklahoma Sooners (18-13, 8-10) – Big 12 at-large
Player to Watch: Trae Young (27.4 PPG, 8.8 APG, 3.9 RPG)
A lot of the talk around Norman lately has been that the guys around Young need to step up, but this offense goes as their star freshman goes. And Trae Young simply hasn’t gotten it done of late. There’s not a doubt in anyone’s mind whether he’s capable of leading the Sooners. This guy dropped 29 in an upset win at Wichita State, set the NCAA Division I record for assists in a game when he dished out 22 assists against Northwestern State and has scored 30 points nine different times this season. If for some absurd reason you haven’t seen Trae Young play, I highly suggest you tune in Thursday afternoon. The issue with Young and Oklahoma is he has struggled mightily of late. The Sooners have won just four of their last 15 games, and Young has been subpar down the stretch. However, if Trae Young can revert to early season performances, Oklahoma instantly becomes a Final Four contender.
X-Factor: Oklahoma must guard
Oklahoma gives up nearly 82 points per game, which ranks 336th out of 351 teams. For most of the season, the Sooners’ offense overcame those defensive troubles, but once teams figured how to contain Trae Young, Oklahoma’s lack of defensive intensity has been exposed. Rhode Island isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, scoring just over 76 points per game, but the Rams spread you out and will attack the Sooners’ defensive issues. Oklahoma has the pieces to be at least a decent defensive unit with Khadeem Latin protecting the rim and long, athletic wings, but it has to start with their star point guard, Trae Young. At times, Young has been nonchalant on defense to stay out of foul trouble because he and head coach Lon Kruger understand the importance of Young being on the floor as much as possible. Well, this is postseason basketball, and Young has had the whole season to figure out how to guard without fouling. Relying on 40 and 10 from Young won’t be good enough for Oklahoma to advance, they must defend.
Matchup to Watch: Rhode Island’s guards vs. Trae Young
The Rams have a plethora of talented and experienced groups that Danny Hurley will more than likely rotate on Trae Young to try to contain this freshman phenom. Expect Jared Terrell to get the bulk of the work, but Jeff Dowtin, Fats Russell, Stanford Robinson, Jarvis Garrett, and even possibly E.C. Matthews will all take turns defending Young. If they can contain and disrupt the rhythm of Trae Young all game long, the Rams could cruise to an opening round victory. However, if Young can find that magic he’s had in moments throughout the season and can contribute for the entire 40 minutes, Oklahoma becomes very difficult to beat.
Key Stat: Rhode Island’s ability to turn you over vs. Trae Young’s struggles to take care of the ball
The Rams are 15th in the country in turnovers forced, creating nearly 16 turnovers per game. Meanwhile, Trae Young turns the ball over an average of 5.2 times per game, far and away the most by anyone in the country. Yes, Trae Young has the ball in hands a lot and having a ball-dominant point guard comes with dealing with mistakes, Young must take care of the basketball against a Rhode Island defense that prides themselves on creating turnovers.
Prediction: Rhode Island 84 – 77 Oklahoma
Trae Young is going to put on a show the opening game of the first round as he has often been at his best when the lights are the brightest. Also, Rhode Island hasn’t had a chance to see Young and nothing in practice can replicate this guy’s ability. A lot of his troubles in the second half of the season can be accounted for teams seeing Young for the second time. However, this Oklahoma defense is just abysmal, and this is a team game. Rhode Island has a better, more experienced team who won’t be phased by any of Trae Young’s heroics. The Rams’ balance and togetherness will lead them past Trae Young and the Oklahoma Sooners.