SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – As non-conference play winds down, Rhode Island is experiencing what many could have predicted they would before the season: growing pains. Their 77-64 loss to Southern Miss is perhaps a microcosm of the season, and it’s not surprising that it left head coach Dan Hurley musing about the state of his team as Atlantic 10 play approaches.
Rhode Island certainly had their moments. They responded to an early blitz by the Golden Eagles, leading for stretches in the first half and tying the game early in the second half. But once Southern Miss scored eight unanswered points to break the tie, the Rams were playing catch-up the rest of the way. They rallied to within 64-62, but the Golden Eagles then scored the next 11 points to seal it.
“Those guys are grown men,” Hurley said. “We’ve had some guys that had been playing like grown men, and for whatever reason… You can have bad shooting games, you can have games where the ball doesn’t find you offensively, especially against a zone like that which is as erratic and as fluid as theirs is, but there’s no reason not to play great defense and rebound the ball aggressively, and we failed to do that today.”
While Hurley is lamenting the roster with nine scholarship players and the limitations it poses, as well as some players not coming alive as quickly as he and the staff had surely hoped, he didn’t go off on them. He’s taking responsibility as well, not only in how they have recruited but also in how they have coached.
“Obviously, the practice plans the last couple of days were not the right ones for us, and I’m the one that wrote them, and I have to do a better job of preparing the team,” Hurley said.
The reality is that when Hurley took over, the situation was not good, and last year reflected that as there wasn’t much reshaping of the roster that could be done for that time. While the team is better this year – their 7-5 record is only part of that – they weren’t going to leap right into contender status, even if the Atlantic 10 was down as much as it might have first looked with the departures of Butler and Xavier to go along with rising Charlotte. There was only so much this team was going to improve so quickly. Then you have the challenge of blending in transfers and dealing with the rust of not playing at game speed for a year.
And there’s also the freshmen. The Rams have two talented ones, but they have to grow. However, you get the sense listening to Hurley that some upperclassmen have to grow in ways they shouldn’t right now. While growing pains are to be expected, some things are not, and the talent is there with some others but something is missing.
“You get these four guys that sat out last year and watched (Xavier Munford) and T.J. (Buchanan) and Ryan (Brooks) and Alwayne (Bigby) and Andre Malone,” said Hurley. “They watched them fight so hard from beginning to end, and they haven’t adopted that. We’re not talented enough to roll it out there right now. We’ve got to be scrappy, we’ve got to be gritty. Hassan Martin is probably the hardest-playing guy we have on the team right now, and he’s an 18-year-old freshman.”
The Rams have had some roster turnover since the start of the season. Jordan Hare, an intriguing post prospect, is back home in Michigan tending to a personal matter, and it’s anyone’s guess if he will ever return. Mike Powell, who started at the point the past two seasons, transferred after he had been suspended. Mike Aaman, who usually has the fight that Hurley wants to see, is out indefinitely and has been banged up often this season.
Simply put, this is a team that hasn’t yet found its identity. Hurley knows what they should be, and it makes sense since this team isn’t lacking talent but can’t win on talent alone. These are among the challenges of meshing this group together and with the limitations of not being able to change the roster so quickly in less than two years.
At this point, save for further injuries the Rams know who they will have the rest of the way. Hurley will probably play E.C. Matthews more, perhaps in a starting role, and let him play through mistakes. Martin will probably get more minutes as well so he can continue to grow, as evidenced in part by 16 blocked shots in the last four games. DeShon “Biggie” Minnis and Jarelle Reischel, two transfers, have been up and down, and may get a chance to settle into regular roles. The latter, in particular, is an intriguing talent they can get more from.
“Obviously they need to be in that 30-minute range every game, because these guys have a chance to be great players, and we need to lean even more heavy on them moving forward,” Hurley said of his freshmen.
The Rams head up the road to play at Brown on Thursday and then go to LSU before Atlantic 10 play begins. They have some certainty at this point, as they know their roster and what they need to be. Now they need to grow and play up to the talent they have. There will be pain, at times in the form of losses, but it’s part of the growing process – one that was sure to happen before the season and is taking place right now.