The Rhode Island Rams, have not made the NCAA Tournament since 1999, will be a Sweet 16 participant in March of 2017. On the surface this sounds like a hilariously bold claim to make. In reality, the Rams’ situation is significantly better and more complex than their 17-15 record would indicate. There is a lot more to the story.
The Rams are no strangers to success despite being a small school from a small state. Their best campaign was in 1998, when they made a splash and ran all the way to the Elite Eight and were two points from making a Final Four appearance. Lamar Odom was the team’s leader when the Rams last appeared in the Bid Dance in 1998. The 12th-seeded Rhode Island squad lost to Charlotte in overtime. After that the Rams began a lengthy, multi-decade NCAA Tournament drought and have made very little noise since.
On another note, the team plays in a conference that is not given the amount of credit that it is due. The Atlantic 10 conference is far from a one-bid league, but for some reason is not looked at in that light. Last year, three teams made the tournament (St. Joseph’s, Dayton, and VCU). So the conference has current legitimacy and it does not lack historical importance. LaSalle won a title in 1954, VCU had a magical run in 2011, Shaka Smart built the VCU program into a tournament regular, and Phil Martelli has led several runs in his tenure with St. Joe’s. Yet, the notion of the Atlantic 10 being a productive conference is strange. This should not be the case at all.
That is where the notion of the Rams making the Sweet Sixteen is generated from. If we look at the conference in a different light, then we can give Rhode Island a bit more credit. If they are a legitimate contender in the conference, then they can be a legitimate contender nationally. So let’s take a peek at the Atlantic 10’s recent history: The conference received three bids in 2015, a whopping six in 2014 (more than the SEC, Big East, and American conferences), and five in 2013 which was the third most by a conference in the tournament. The conference is due a little more respect. They have proven that year in and year out the Atlantic 10 can produce tournament teams. That means that any team able to compete in the A-10 is due some respect.
That does not change the fact that Rhode Island has not danced since 1999. So what makes this Rhode Island team ready to not only break through the tournament bid barrier, but also make a run this year? It is the process that has been the re-formation of the Rams’ program. In reality, the Rams have proven that, when healthy, they can be one of the best teams in the conference and thus one of the best teams in the country.
Current head coach Dan Hurley took over for the 2012-13 season. The team went 8-21. Over the next few seasons, Hurley steadily improved the team’s standing, capped by a 23-10 record in 2014-15. Unfortunately, the team was not one of the A-10 teams invited to the dance. Then, just when they seemed poised to finally make that coveted NCAA appearance, disaster struck. A whole ten minutes into the team’s opener guard E.C. Matthews tore his ACL. In 2014-2015 season, he had averaged 16.9 points, 2.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game. Matthews was a legitimate candidate for A-10 player of the year. The loss was devastating and all of the momentum that Rhode Island and Hurley had built dissipated.
This year will be different. Mathews is back along with an excellent supporting cast and a great deal of experience. In all, the team returns four of its five leading scorers. It gets better because, these five players are also the five leading rebounders on the team. The only notable departure is fourth leading scorer Four McGlynn who graduated. So a team that was already able to muster a .500 record (9-9) in a conference that has proven itself all comes back with another year of experience–and returns a star player.
The crux of the matter is this: the team that lost their star player was still able to muster a .500 record in an underappreciated conference. They have proven that, when all together, they can win. Three players plus Mathews return who played on the 23-10 2014-2015 team and Four McGlynn was not even a part of that team. So, what we have is a team that has proven that they can win, when healthy, and now adds Kuran Iverson’s production. Last year’s team was actually picked second in the preseason Atlantic-10 poll and Matthews and Martin were preaseason all A-10. This team was supposed to win last year. Now they have another year under their belts and a returning star. This is an experienced team that knows how to play together. Sure, it may take a moment for E.C. Matthews and Iverson to gel. However, this team has the experience and drive to make some noise.
Dan Hurley did not lose all of the momentum that he had been building with the boys in baby blue when Matthews was injured. He merely stowed it away for the 2016-2017 season, the season in which the Rhode Island rams will taste the sweetness that is the second weekend in March.