Three years ago, Dan Hurley arrived at Rhode Island and inherited a complete rebuild project with a team that had went 4-12 in Atlantic 10 play the previous season.
After two bumpy seasons that resulted in losing records, Hurley and the Rams finally hit their stride last season, winning 23 games and advancing to the second round of the Postseason NIT.
This season, the Rams are looking to pick up where they left off last season and continue their winning ways. Some preseason publications, such as Lindy’s college basketball preview, have the Rams tabbed as a Top 25 squad and favorites to win the A-10.
I recently caught up with Dave Ascoli, editor of RhodyRampage.com, to discuss expectations for the Rams this upcoming season.
“Based on the young talent they’re returning from a very successful 2014-15, there’s no doubt that Rhode Island is set to take a(nother) step forward this season,” Ascoli said. “As far as expectations, I expect them to contend for both the Atlantic 10 regular season title and the A-10 Tournament Championship. Sure, they did both of those last year as well. But the difference this year is that the conference as a whole is poised for a step up as well.”
As usual, the A-10 will be one of the most competitive non-power conferences this season, with up to six teams vying for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. However, the returning talent that Ascoli spoke of is one reason why the Rams stand out above the rest of the conference.
The Rams are lead by conference player of the year candidate E.C. Matthews. Ascoli described Matthews as a player who can do a little bit of everything and is “hard to guard.”
“He’s lethal in transition,” Ascoli said. “But he can also beat you off the dribble in the half court. Or from beyond the arc. Or with face-up jumpers.”
According to Ascoli, Matthews played injured for much of last season, and after an offseason of rest and a minor surgery, will finally be at 100 percent this season. That’s good news for the Rams, and bad news for the rest of the conference.
In addition to Matthews, the Rams also feature one of the best forwards in the conference in Hassan Martin. Martin may not get as much credit as he should, partly because of Matthews and partly because he is undersized (6’7″) for his position, but he is equally as important to the Rams’ success.
Ascoli described Martin as a player who is a force on the defensive end that plays bigger than he is and has a developing offensive game. He provides the Rams with a dominant post presence as a scorer, rebounder and shot blocker.
Matthews and Martin give Rhode Island a solid inside-out scoring duo, but the Rams also feature a talented, deep supporting cast. This season, the Rams will rely on two sophomores — Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell — as well as and two transfers — Kuran Iverson and Four McGlynn — to provide key minutes as role players.
Garrett and Terrell each started as freshmen last season, but struggled at times with consistency. However, as the season went along both players started to come around and were playing at a high level by the time the conference tournament started. This season, Hurley expects the duo to pick up where they left off last season and provide the team with needed scoring, playmaking ability and perimeter defense.
Meanwhile, Iverson and McGlynn are immediate-impact players who will make a difference from day one.
Ascoli said Iverson is a potential starter who can play virtually any position on the floor. Because of his versatility, Ascoli expects Hurley to use Iverson in various lineups.
McGlynn gives the Rams an extra knock-down shooter that it missed at times last season. The graduate transfer led Towson in scoring last season (12.0 ppg), and will provide the Rams with an experienced scorer off the bench.
With all of the offensive firepower on the roster, it’s easy to overlook the main reason for Rhode Island’s success last season, which was its constant emphasis on defense.
Last season, the Rams were one of the better defensive squads in the nation, holding opponents to 60.2 ppg and 40.2 percent shooting — a feat Ascoli credits to Hurley’s recruiting.
“Dan Hurley and his staff have made a point of targeting guys who can step in and play D-1 level defense right away. Ascoli said. “After that, it boils down to both scouting and coaching. But make no mistake: when the Rams hit the recruiting trail, they’re specifically looking for guys who can hit the ground running on D.”
After getting back to the postseason last season, the Rams are now poised for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1999. If that happens, it will be the culmination of an outstanding three-year rebuilding effort by Hurley and his staff.
The Rams are as well-coached as any team in the A-10, and have arguably the most talent as well. With good offense and even better defense, its easy to see why expectations are at an all-time high for Rhode Island this season, and why the Rams are worthy of a Top 25 ranking.