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Rhode Island Rams offer balanced attack for UNC men's basketball in NIT

Will Graves has been UNC’s go-to man behind the 3-point arc. DTH File/Phong Dinh
Will Graves has been UNC’s go-to man behind the 3-point arc. DTH File/Phong Dinh

Before his team was matched up against Rhode Island, North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t know all that much about the Rams (26-9), and understandably so.

The Tar Heels (19-16) have met the Atlantic-10 foe just three times in their 100-year history, the last time being a 112-67 win in the 1993 NCAA Tournament.

But witnessing their 40 minutes of basketball in Blacksburg, Va., was more than enough to have Williams and his assistants scrambling to formulate a game plan.

“I’m scared, first of all, because we tried our darnedest to beat Virginia Tech at Virginia Tech, and we didn’t get it done,” Williams said. “I watched every possession of the game, and I was extremely impressed.”

Rhode Island features a balanced scoring attack, with three players averaging double-digits in the point column. Senior guard Keith Cothran paces the Rams offensively with 14.1 points per game, and forwards Delroy James and Lamonte Ulmer chip in 13.2 and 11.9 ppg, respectively.

On the strength of that trio, Rhode Island posted the second-highest scoring average in the Atlantic 10 this season.

“They’ve got some very good players, and we’ve definitely got our hands full,” sophomore Tyler Zeller said.

The Rams’ scoring balance will butt heads with a UNC defense that has become increasingly stingy. Though North Carolina finished last in scoring defense in the ACC this season, the Tar Heels have allowed an average of only 67 points per game in NIT play.

And UNC has made key defensive stops when it needed them. Without a two-handed John Henson block against Mississippi State, the Tar Heels could have been eliminated in the second round.

The same goes for the crucial defensive clampdowns in the final minutes of UNC’s victories against UAB and William & Mary.

“It starts with one person playing hard, and everyone feeds off each other,” Henson said. “One person comes to play D … and we come and feed off their energy.”

Whatever the result of tonight’s semifinal game, Williams said he will not find a silver lining in it unless he sees all-out hustle from his players.

Williams spoke on numerous occasions this season of a lack of passion from the Tar Heels and said he was frustrated that he was forced to coach effort for the first time in his 22-year career on the bench.

Though his team has shown improvement in that area in the National Invitational Tournament, one such lapse occurred in the second round against Mississippi State. UNC fell behind 13-2 in the game’s first four minutes in what Henson called a lack of focus.

“Our goal has not been to make it to New York or not been to win the whole thing. It’s to try to play the best we can every day,” Williams said. “Every game I say let’s play our tails off, and perhaps someone will say, ‘OK, we’ll let you play one more.’”

The Lowdown on Tuesday's Game

No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Rhode Island
Madison Square Garden
Broadcast: ESPN2
Radio: 1360 WCHL

Head-to-head

Backcourt: In the NIT, Larry Drew II is finally showing fans and critics why recruiting extraordinaire Roy Williams gave him a scholarship. His heroics at Miss. State and a complete game against UAB are proof enough. Edge: UNC

Frontcourt: Junior forward Delroy James was last year’s Atlantic-10 Sixth Man of the Year and has become the only man for the Rams in the postseason, leading URI in points with 34 and 18 in the past two games. Edge: URI

Bench: N.C. native and freshman guard Akeem Richmond is URI’s fourth-leading scorer, and he’s only started one game. But when Roy subs in Dexter Strickland, Richmond will forget where home is. Edge: UNC

Intangibles: Rhode Island dropped only nine games this year, and only three by double digits. But who  did the Rams play? URI didn’t play a single marquee team outside its lackluster conference before the postseason. Edge: UNC

The Bottom Line — North Carolina 82 , Rhode Island 73

Contact the Sports Editor at sports@unc.edu.

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