This is the year. I mean, this has GOT to be the year. Last year was supposed to be the year and the year before that was close, but damn it, THIS IS THE YEAR.
After a 23-win 2014-15 campaign that ended in a tie for second in the A-10 and a two-game appearance in the NIT before bowing out to Stanford, Dan Hurley’s Rhode Island Rams looked poised to snap a 16-year NCAA tournament draught this past season dating back to a time when Britney Spears was a new artist and Lamar Odom was a standout new URI hooper and not just a train-wreck tabloid star.
But the injury bug hit the Rams and hit them hard, taking down E.C. Matthews in game-one of last season then banging up a number of key pieces throughout the year. Rhody fought but just couldn’t overcome enough adversity to sniff postseason play, let alone an NCAA tournament birth. But with Matthews and the majority of their firepower back Ram fans will once again hope this is the year. Here’s why I think they should believe.
1. Even with a banged up roster, Rhode Island was a tough out the entire 2015-16 season
URI lost 15 games this past season, 11 of which were to kenpom top-100 teams. Eight of those 11 games were away from the Ryan Center. The Rams lost four games to sub-100 teams, two of which were without both Matthews and Hassan Martin (at Fordham by 3, versus UMass by 5 in the A-10 tournament), another was an OT road loss at UMass without the services of both Jarvis Garrett and Kuran Iverson. I could continue to drill down into the specifics but what I’m getting at is that Rhody was a VERY tough team who was just on the wrong side of a TON of close games (11 losses by 6 points or less) with a roster that was beaten up all season long. If the Rams get healthy they will take on the vast majority of those teams with weakened rosters and will do so with an improved roster themselves. I’ve watched enough years of college hoops to know that that almost always increases a teams win total and increased win totals in leagues like the A-10 usually results in NCAA tournament births.
2. Experienced roster has what it takes
Rhode Island’s 2014-15 team (ranked No.56 nationally by kenpom) won 23 games before seeing their NCAA tournament hopes dashed by Dayton in the A-10 semis. That URI team’s top-five scorers were E.C. Matthews (16.9 ppg), Hassan Martin (11.4), Jared Terrell (9.2), Gilvydas Biruta (8.1) and Jarvis Garrett (6.4). Four of those players will be on next year’s Rams team. Add Kuran Iverson and incoming Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson (forced to sit out this past season due to NCAA eligibility rules) and you have a team that is not only extremely talented but one that is an experienced group that knows how to play together.
3. A-10 schedule could be favorable
I feel like every season I think a team has a favorable schedule before some surprises (Saint Joseph’s) and disappointments (Richmond) throw everything out of whack, but if URI gets the A-10 schedule I think they’ll get it could lead to a ton of A-10 wins. For starters, assuming the A-10 sticks to its current scheduling pattern, that would mean Rhody would host VCU, St. Bonaventure, GW and Davidson with no return games, four teams that have come to enjoy playing in the top half of the conference. Again, scheduling patterns would suggest they will host that group with NO return game, giving Rhody a potential advantage in the A-10 standings thanks to head-to-head tie-breakers, which could look good on their tournament resume should they need to submit one following next year’s A-10 tourney in Pittsburgh. Playing Dayton twice will be a chore and an improved La Salle team should be a headache, but they’ll get a Saint Joseph’s team twice that like two seasons ago loses the core of its team (Miles, Bembry, Brown), a UMass squad graduating a lot of production from an already struggling team and a Fordham team who loses one of their best backcourt players as well as one of the better frontcourt players in the conference. Return more talent than your competitors and play the toughest teams at home? Sounds like a solid recipe for wins to me.
Update* I wrote this piece and scheduled it to post before the A-10 released this season’s schedule pairings (hey, who knew they’d release em so soon!?). Needless to say the ACTUAL pairings were mixed up with the addition of Davidson to URI’s home-and-home schedule. That was the only real change to the schedule, which does beef up the level of difficulty somewhat. Still, hosting VCU, Bona and GW with no return game could help Rhody’s cause.
4. Because these dudes defend
The Rams ranked fourth in conference play in the Atlantic 10 last season in defensive efficiency without 6’5 guard E.C. Matthews. With Matthews in the lineup the 2014-15 Rams ranked ninth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. NINTH! The Rams were solid without Matthews defensively last season (first in the Atlantic 10 on the season in points allowed) but should be improved next year and that, Ram fans, is something to be excited about.
5. Cosmic basketball forces will demand it
I’ve been a college basketball blogger since 2007 and a fan since well before that and I just know how these things work. The Rams haven’t danced since 1999, struggled this past season thanks to injuries, yet still had to deal with Rutgers fans and their administrators wanting Dan Hurley in scarlet next season as their new head coach. Hurley thankfully passed, Matthews comes back and the stars are aligning for a magical season for Ram fans, one whose goal should not only be to put those Keaney blue dancing shoes back on for the first time since Lamar Odom was getting down to TLC’s “No Scrubs”, but to see em out there for a couple of songs next March as well. The stars have aligned, both in the cosmos and on the court and next year is the year…I just know it.