PITTSBURGH — Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley texted point guard Fatts Russell the night before the Rams' NCAA opener on Thursday to say he considered Russell among the best freshman guard recruits in the nation, perhaps second only to Oklahoma's Trae Young, who might also be the collegiate player of the year.
"He's a competitive kid," Hurley said. "He told me I was wrong and he was going to prove me wrong today, and he put on a show."
Russell, the former Imhotep Charter star who often gets limited opportunity on a Rhode Island team loaded with seniors, did just that. Not only did he drop in three three-pointers and score 15 points in Rhode Island's 83-78 overtime win over Oklahoma, well above his season average, but he founding himself guarding Young most of the time and more than holding his own.
"Coach has a lot of confidence in me," Russell said. "Every time I get into the game, he doesn't tell me not to be myself. He tells me to be myself. My self is confidence."
He's only 5-foot-8 and is listed at 165 pounds, but Russell's shots were all big, none bigger than a second-half three-pointer after he stole an inbound pass by Young to put Rhode Island up by five points. Russell has made big shots before. He finished his high school career as Imhotep's all-time leader in points, assists and steals, and the Panthers won the Class 4A state championship in his senior season.
For Rhode Island, Russell averaged 18 minutes per game and just 6.8 points this season. He scored a total of 23 points in the Rams' three Atlantic Ten tournament games. But when Rhode Island's offense was flagging in the opening half on Thursday against Oklahoma, Hurley went looking for a spark and knew where to look.
"If he wasn't on such a senior-laden team, especially at the guard spot, I think he would have been up for rookie of the year in our conference, and he would have been one of the best freshman guards in the country," Hurley said.
The seventh-seeded Rams advance to play the winner of Duke-Iona, attempting for the second straight season to get to the Sweet 16. They lost narrowly in the round of 32 last year to an Oregon team that made it to the Final Four.
Russell, whose first name is Daron, received his nickname from his mother because he was a chubby baby.