URI is the lone local N.I.T. pick

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URI is the lone local N.I.T. pick

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

New England teams have not had good luck in the 2010 postseason.

The N.I.T., a tournament lacking the glamour of the Big Dance but an extension of the season nonetheless, saw four schools from the northeast gain entry; UConn, Quinnipiac, Northeastern, and Rhode Island.

Northeastern was the first to get tossed. Barely. Last Tuesday No. 5 NU played within two points of the two-time national champion Connecticut Huskies. The fourth-seeded Big East brawler sat in a six-point hole until senior Jerome Dyson took over the offense, scoring 11 of UConns final 13 points to help the team escape with a 59-57 win.

"I didn't want it to go down and end like that," the guard said. "I just tried to be more aggressive."

Dysons desperation to end a down season on an upswing was not enough to save Connecticut Monday night. The Huskies missed an opportunity to put away No. 1 seed Virginia Tech in the closing seconds of the second-round game and lost, 65-63. It was an almost appropriate end to months of struggle; 11 ticks left on the clock and not only did Kemba Walkers shot rim out, but senior Gavin Edwards missed an open layup after collecting the rebound, ending the game and the season.

The Huskies join Quinnipiac on the heap of lost postseason hopes.

The Bobcats were Virginia Techs first victim in a Mar. 17 match up. Though No. 8 seed QU wasnt expected to beat the No. 1 Hokies -- an ACC squad widely regarded as an NCAA Tournament snub -- the 20-point steamrolling was still painful. Quinnipiac had earned top regular-season honors by beating every team in the NEC at least once en route to its 15-3 conference record. Among those wins was an 87-79 road stunner against eventual league champion Robert Morris.

Sophomore guard James Johnson had 28 points on that February day, but it was an effort he couldnt replicate against an ACC team in the first round of the N.I.T. Johnson notched just eight points against the Hokies stingy defense, symbolizing Quinnipiacs overall struggle. The Bobcats shot just 38.1 percent from the floor (24-for-63) and were outrebounded 42-30. Think that the boards are a secondary statistic in an 81-61 blowout? QU came into the N.I.T. ranked No. 1 nationally in rebounding margin (9.2) and seventh in rebounds per game (40.7). Getting out-muscled on the glass, in territory that the Bobcats reigned over so absolutely all year, was an out-of-conference reality check.

That kind of shock isnt something that URI worries about.

"We know what the NIT is," Rams center Will Martel said. "We've only been to the second round, but we're experienced. I think we've got a good shot at winning the championship."

Martel might be right.

Before losing 6 of its last 10 games, Rhode Island was 19-3 and hot for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Runnin Rams were eating up teams like Northeastern, Dayton, and Oklahoma State by playing smart but gusty basketball. And a deep bench helped keep composure consistent. These qualities, despite a drawn-out stumble at the end of the year, are resurfacing for URI now in the N.I.T.

Round one challenged No. 2 seed Rhody with the likes of John Shurna, seventh-seeded Northwesterns leading scorer (18.3 ppg). Coach Jim Baron dug into his bench, as he had all year, and came up with a five-man defensive rotation. The tag team man-to-man effort kept Shurna below his average and ensured the Rams a 76-64 win.

The story was similar in URIs second round contest. On Monday night, NBA prospect Luke Babbitt (22.1 ppg) led sixth-seeded Nevada into battle. Defense once again won the day as Rhode Island limited the WACs Player of the Year to just 14 points. Delroy James, a junior forward for the Rams, was not only instrumental in shutting down Babbitt but also went off on the other end of the floor for a career-high 34 points.

So URIs season continues to inch closer to April. But in this round the Rams stand alone as the last New England representative. Can Rhody, the Atlantic 10s fith-place finisher, handle the Hokies? The quarterfinal contest will mark the Rams as the third team from the Northeast to try.

Maybe three will be a lucky number.

This is our third straight N.I.T.," Will Martel said. We laid an egg my freshman year. There's no way that's ever going to happen again."
Mary Paoletti is on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Whalen, part of Colts' infamous fake punt play, settles in with Patriots

Whalen, part of Colts' infamous fake punt play, settles in with Patriots

FOXBORO – Griff Whalen was at the epicenter of one of the stupidest, funniest, most “did that just happen?!” plays in NFL history.

So indescribable it never even really earned a name, it was the fourth-down gadget play the Colts tried to run against the Patriots on Sunday Night Football in the first meeting between the teams after Indy ran to the principal’s office to start Deflategate. 

Whalen was the center on that play (I tried to call it “Fourth-and-Wrong” but it didn’t take) and the millisecond between him snapping the ball and the three players processing that the ball had indeed been snapped is perhaps my favorite moment of the past several seasons. 

Whalen is a Patriot now, brought in this week in the wake of Danny Amendola’s knee injury presumably to fill Amendola’s role as a punt returner and wideout. The Colts released him last January, the Dolphins picked him up and cut him at the end of training camp and the Chargers had him on their roster from mid-September until releasing him last month after eight games, two catches and 22 yards. He returned kickoffs for San Diego but no punts since 2015.

The primary area of need for the Patriots is on punt returns. Rookie Cyrus Jones’ transition to appearing comfortable remains glacially slow. It was Jones’ muff last week that brought on Amendola in relief. When Amendola hurt his ankle on a late-game return, the Patriots were forced to decide between Jones, wideout Julian Edelman (who doesn’t need extra work) and making a move.

Whalen is a move they made.

The slight and baby-faced Whalen indicated he had fielded some punts in practice, saying it went, “Fine.” Punt returns are something he’s done “since I was a kid.”

His first impression of the team was, "A lot of what I expected to see. A lot of detail. A lot of effort in practice. Good coaching all-around. I am excited to be here. I was excited to come into a good team that I’d gone against a few times. Hopefully come in and help out the team with whatever I can.”

I asked Whalen if he saw much of the commentary or creativity last year’s failed play spawned.

“I wasn’t paying too much attention,” he said. “When it’s during the season guys are pretty locked in on what they’re doing inside the building. But I heard more about it later on afterwards.”

Asked if he’d heard anything about the play since being here, Whalen replied, “I haven’t. Kinda was [expecting it].”

The Patriots will be hoping Whalen remains as productive for them on fourth down this year as he was in 2015.

 

Celtics' ball movement among NBA's best, with or without Thomas

Celtics' ball movement among NBA's best, with or without Thomas

BOSTON – When it comes to winning basketball, keep it moving – the ball that is – has become a staple of the Celtics this season. 
 
And lately they’ve had to do it without Isaiah Thomas, the team’s leading scorer at 26 points per game as well as their top assists guy (6.2) who will miss hish third game in a row Sunday in Oklahoma City because of a right groin injury.
 
The Celtics have split their first two games without Thomas, with the most recent being a 101-94 home loss to Toronto on Friday.
 
When it comes to this team and ball movement, fans are just as divided when it pertains to whether the Celtics move the ball better without the high-scoring Thomas in the lineup. 
 
Regardless of what fans think they know about this team and how they move the ball, the numbers paint a very clear picture that this team’s ball movement is among the best in the NBA, with or without Thomas in the lineup. 

And that will be important on Sunday against an Oklahoma City team that doesn’t rely on the ball swinging from one side of the floor to the other, nearly as much as the Celtics. 
 
The Thunder, led by MVP candidate Russell Westbrook, are dead-last in the NBA when it comes to passes made per game (267.1). 
 
Meanwhile, the Celtics are at the opposite end of the passing game spectrum, averaging 331.7 passes per game, which is second in the NBA (Philadelphia, 354.3).
 
And in the two games without Thomas, Boston has averaged 347.0 passes per game, which ranks second in the NBA in that period of time. 
 
In addition to missing his points and assists, the Celtics must also find ways to make plays in filling the void left by a player who has the ball in his hands a lot of the time. 
 
Thomas’ usage percentage (percentage of plays used by a player while he’s on the floor) of 32.9 percent ranks seventh in the NBA, ahead of notable stars such as San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard (30.9 percent), Portland’s Damian Lillard (30.8 percent), New York’s Carmelo Anthony (29.5 percent), as well as Cleveland’s LeBron James (29 percent) and Golden State’s back-to-back NBA MVP Stephen Curry (28.2 percent).
 
So, considering how involved Thomas has been in the team’s offense, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the numbers in terms of passing and ball movement are better without him than they are when he’s on the floor playing. 
 
What should be surprising is that the gap statistically without him, isn’t greater. 
 
Boston has been a top five team when it comes to assists this season, currently third in the league with 24.7 assists per game. In the past two games without Thomas, the Celtics’ assists numbers have risen to 26.5 per game, but that only ranks fifth in the league in that span.
 
When it comes to potential assists and secondary assists (a.k.a. the “hockey” assist), Boston’s numbers have improved slightly without Thomas as well, but in each category Boston is ranked second in the league. 
 
And that ranking is with, and without Thomas in the lineup. 
 
While it’s not clear if Thomas knows just how close the numbers in terms of ball movement are with and without him playing, he is acutely aware that there are some who believe they are a better team in terms of keeping the ball moving without him.
 
“I can’t control that,” Thomas told reporters on Friday. “At this point, I laugh about it. I know what I mean to my teammates. I know what I mean to this organization, to Brad Stevens.”