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Rhode Island Ready for Season

November 19, 2003 Columns No Comments

Rams Ready to Face Challenges

by Phil Kasiecki

The 2003-04 season will be the third season under Jim Baron at Rhode Island, and it’s one that many in South Kingston are looking forward to. Fresh off the success of last season, when the Rams opened the new Thomas M. Ryan Center with a 20-12 season and an NIT bid, the Rams are expected to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid this season.

The Rams lose Howard Smith, the consummate pass-first point guard, and Lazare Adingono among starters from last season’s team. The big boost will come from the return of Brian Woodward, who regained the year he had to sit out as a Prop 48. One of only two seniors on this team (guard Steve Mello is the other), Woodward led the team in scoring and rebounding last season, but will have plenty of help – a point Baron stresses in talking about this team.

The Rams have solid veterans in junior guards Dustin Hellenga and Dawan Robinson, with role playing juniors Jamaal Wise and Marcel Momplaisir joining junior college transfer Randy Brooks. Sophomores Terrence Mack and Jon Clark are among the frontcourt holdovers who help out, and will get more help from the lone freshman on the team, J.R. Moore. In December, Scott Hazleton, a transfer from Connecticut, becomes eligible and gives them a big talent boost. He will be just the third McDonald’s All-American ever to play at Rhode Island.

Baron sees this team as being very athletic, and likes the depth on this team.

“We want to be very athletic,” he said. “I think with the numbers that we have, it really gives us an opportunity to use a lot of players, and we want to take advantage of that.”

Baron is challenging them with a tough schedule. Awaiting the Rams prior to Atlantic Ten play are road contests with defending national champion Syracuse, as well as fellow Big East members Seton Hall and Miami (the latter at a neutral site). The Rams also have good home opponents, taking on future Atlantic Ten member Charlotte and in-state rival Providence, as well as good mid-major programs like Iona, Vermont and Northeastern.

“We’re still growing,” Baron said after their second exhibition game. “It’s a process of growth and development.

“We’re using November to prepare us for December, and I think December will prepare us for the Atlantic Ten play in January.”

When Baron arrived, the program was in shambles, even though it had almost reached the Final Four just three seasons prior. In the two previous seasons, mass player defections, poor recruiting and terrible coaching contributed to two of the worst seasons in the program’s history. The 5-25 record in 1999-2000 marked the lowest season winning percentage. What he inherited made the first season a tough one, though anyone who watched the Rams could see an improvement beyond winning three more games.

That is a major reason why the magical season the Rams had last year, which was one of the best stories in college basketball, was a surprise.

“We’re coming off of three of the worst years in the history of basketball at Rhode Island,” Baron said. “So we have to keep it in perspective from the standpoint of getting better. That’s why we were good last year – we didn’t have a lot of expectations, but we were able to grow, and learn and develop. I think we’re going to continue to do that this year.

Baron has been down this road before, a prime reason the Rams and many other programs coveted him. Prior to his days at Rhode Island, he brought fellow Atlantic Ten member and alma mater St. Bonaventure back to respectability. In 9 seasons as head coach, he led the Bonnies to the NIT three times and the NCAA Tournament in 1999-2000. Although his record there was one game over .500, in the last four seasons there they made three postseason appearances and went 70-52.

The Rams’ sudden success wasn’t expected, but Baron takes the success in stride and realizes it then brings the weight of higher expectations. He has been rewarded with an extension that will keep him in town until 2010, giving him more time to accomplish what he wants.

“We’re building a program, not just a basketball team,” he comments. “We have to work through the challenges that are in front of you, from the standpoint of competition and continuing to get better. We just want to take it one step at a time.

Another thing Baron continues to do is graduate his players. Woodward’s graduation to earn back the year he sat out is just one example, as 95% of his players graduated at St. Bonaventure, while every player at St. Francis (Pa.) graduated. The emphasis on this is even shown by his thoughts on what Hazleton brings to the team upon becoming eligible in December.

“Right now he’s bringing academics,” Baron said. “When he brings the academics, then we’ll get to the basketball. He’s another live body that will add to the mix. I think we have a good nucleus to work with, with the guys coming back.”

The Rams have a good team, and one of the game’s better coaches. They won’t sneak up on anyone this season, but they know that and are ready to face the challenge that lies ahead.


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