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Rhode Island finally broke through and should do so again

October 9, 2017 Columns No Comments

When the subject of Atlantic 10 favorites comes up, discussion should start with Rhode Island. Dan Hurley has built them up that well, and they may ultimately see an unfortunate earlier event become a blessing in disguise.

When Hurley took over, the program wasn’t in a great state. Jim Baron had ably run the show for 11 years, with six postseason appearances, but none were in the tournament most wanted – the NCAA – and the bottom had fallen out with a 7-24 season in 2011-12, a year after they appeared in the CBI. Hurley had succeeded quite well at Wagner, and was ready to try the same in South Kingston. The first two years were tough ones, with the Rams battling gamely to a combined 22-39 mark, but it set the stage for what was to come.

The Rams won 23 games and made the NIT in 2014-15, losing at eventual champion Stanford. Expectations were high for the next season, but star guard E.C. Matthews tore an ACL in the season opener, which was a killer. The Rams never stopped battling, and Matthews’ injury wasn’t the only one, but it was a tough year that ended with a 17-15 mark (including 9-9 in conference play) and a quick exit from the conference tournament.

It might have even made one wonder if the Rams were cursed. That was supposed to be The Year. It was supposed to be when they returned to the NCAA Tournament and contended in the Atlantic 10. Right from the outset, they were dealt a bad hand.

Then came last season, one that still ended with a bit of disappointment, but at least had other desired outcomes before that.

Rhode Island was in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid, but it was anyone’s guess if they would get an at-large bid coming into the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Their resume was on the shaky side, though a very soft bubble helped. The Rams ran the table and left nothing to chance, and considering they were a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it’s probably a good thing they got the conference’s automatic bid.

The Rams went on to beat Creighton in the first round. Getting to the NCAA Tournament was the first goal, but winning a game made it better – and perhaps helped make up for the tough year before it. They had Oregon on the ropes in the second round, leading by 11 with under 14 minutes left and answering a Ducks rally to go up by four with 2:11 left. Maybe, just maybe, this was going to be a year of even more redemption, a year to fully blast away all the prior disappointments. But Oregon had other ideas, scoring the last seven points to hand the Rams a heart-breaking loss en route to the Final Four.

This year’s team will have to make up for a couple of key personnel losses, but a deep and experienced backcourt can carry them far. Matthews returns this year, a year he would not be around if not for having to redshirt two years ago, and he has plenty of help. Fellow senior Jarvis Garrett is one of the most underrated floor leaders in the country, while Jared Terrell, another senior, looks to close out his fine career on a good note after he was third on the team in scoring last season. Stanford Robinson, an Indiana transfer, is a fourth senior on the perimeter who will contribute as a glue guy. Jeff Dowtin is practically the baby of the bunch, a sophomore who started his career well last year and had the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team. There is a younger player in the mix, though: freshman Daron Russell, who should earn some minutes as well, though they may be limited with this veteran group.

The frontcourt is where the questions are, but that’s not a bad place to be in college basketball. What makes it a little more challenging is that one of the departures is Hassan Martin, who was basically the heart and soul of the team for most of his career. Martin came to college as a kid and left as a man, developing into one of the Atlantic 10’s best players. They also have to replace leading rebounder Kuran Iverson, a talented player who found a good fit in South Kingston and was one of three Rams to start all 35 games last season.

Sophomore Cyril Langevine is the most experienced holdover, as he played in all 35 games a year ago, starting five. That means Nicola Akele, another holdover who also played in every game, will need to make big strides, and some new blood will need to contribute right away. The most likely candidate among the latter would appear to be Ryan Preston, a junior college transfer from Brooklyn whose team won 57 games the prior two seasons.

Rhode Island has been a strong defensive team under Hurley, and last season was no exception as opponents shot 40.6 percent from the field. The Rams not only had a 2.6 rebounding margin, but also forced two more turnovers per game than they committed, largely by keeping turnovers down. It will take a different effort to repeat the rebounding number with Iverson and Martin, their top two rebounders who combined for 14.1 boards per game, no longer around.

The Atlantic 10’s other top teams are in a bit of transition. Dayton and VCU both have new head coaches, and while both should remain strong, they also had significant personnel changes as well. Add that to Rhode Island’s overall roster, and you can understand why they should be who most select as favorites in the conference this season.

We’ll find out early enough if this team will be at least as good as advertised, as the Rams play a very challenging non-conference slate. They open the season with a visit from Big South powerhouse UNC Asheville, then travel to Nevada. Later, they go to Brooklyn to play Seton Hall and either Vanderbilt or Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off. Arch-rival Providence visits to start December, then they head to Alabama and close out the slate with three straight at home, none of them gimmes as CAA favorite College of Charleston, Iona and Atlantic Sun power Florida Gulf Coast all visit the Ryan Center.

The Rams have a deep and experienced backcourt, and that should carry them a long way. Matthews is determined to fulfill the promise he showed upon arriving there, while Garrett and Terrell have grown over their careers. Add a solid role player in Robinson and the next man up in Dowtin, and you have a unit that no A-10 team should match.

It adds up to a team that shouldn’t have a problem winning from a personnel standpoint. If the Rams are to be denied an Atlantic 10 title and another NCAA Tournament trip this season, the most likely culprit will be injuries or distractions.

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