Entering the 2017 Atlantic 10 Tournament, there were no guarantees that the Rhode Island Rams were making the NCAA Tournament field.
Rhody finished 13-5 in league play, grabbing a four-seed in the league tournament. After winning five straight to end the regular season, they’d gotten back into the conversation. However, the Rams were still on the outside looking in according to bracketologists. They’d likely need to win the A-10 to make it to March Madness.
Shortly before brackets were revealed on Selection Sunday, they did just that. Surprising URI ended a 17-year NCAA Tournament drought by taking down VCU, 70-63. And then, Rhode Island upset Creighton and missed knocking off Final Four participant Oregon by just three points in the second round.
Successful season, clearly. But that may have been the beginning for the Dan Hurley-led Rams as they strive to become one of the top non-power conference programs in the country.
This season, Rhode Island is 23-4, and 15-1 in the Atlantic-10. They’re eighth in RPI. The Rams have no bad losses, but three really nice wins against Providence, Seton Hall and St. Bonaventure (all top-50 in the current RPI). URI’s strength of schedule sits at 48, and that 7-3 road record should send a strong signal to the tournament committee that this team doesn’t rely on its home gym. Emphasizing true road victories this year, a W-L like that can only help matters.
But help them where? Despite the gaudy RPI and respectable SOS, Rhode Island wasn’t seen as a top-16 squad in the committee’s initial rankings. It ends up beating the likes of Providence and Seton Hall doesn’t set the world on fire. But the numbers on paper are strong, and this year’s tournament selection seems like it will be rigid to what those numbers and team sheets provide. For a team that high up in the RPI, with or without a conference title, one would think the Rams would at least get a shot at a top-four seed.
Whether or not they can affect that, though, one thing they’ll need to do this year is keep winning. St. Bonaventure ended the team’s 16-game winning streak last week, and then LaSalle took the Rams to overtime. URI right-sided things against Dayton — a dominating 81-56 win this past Friday night — but when you’re trying to prove something to a committee waiting for you to slip up, style points certainly will matter. The wins need to be both frequent and big to overcome a perception hump, even for the best team in one of the country’s top 10 conferences.
This is relatively new territory for Rhode Island, you see. And for Coach Hurley as well. As he described himself recently to CBS Sports, this isn’t something he’s used to — a historically good season for the program and what looks like a surefire NCAA Tournament bid. He’s used to struggle and some growing pains. This team had been used to missing the NCAAs and not advancing very far the few times they did get there. Rhode Island has just two Sweet 16 trips in program history (1988 and 1998).
In 2018, URI is senior-laden, top-40 or so in both offense and defense (according to KenPom), and brings a newfound feeling of having “been there” before. Jared Terrell, E.C. Matthews, Andre Berry and Jarvis Garrett have all been with Hurley for at least three (mostly four) years, and saw the joys of making last year’s NCAAs. It’s easy enough to surprise fans, opponents and even yourselves the first time around as an underdog in college basketball. But teams see Rhode Island coming now.
So was the case in the recent three-point loss to the Bonnies. Not only was it the biggest win of the year for URI’s conference foe, but it may have also solidified their own trip to the NCAA Tournament.
If you ask the Rams, however, they’re used to this pressure by now, and thrive on the experience of going through all of this once before. Talking to The Athletic, Hurley explains how the players on the current roster have shouldered the load of a lengthy rebuild and the long streak without a trip to the tournament. But as they’ve all bought in, it’s brought a new identity and culture around Rhode Island that’s unfamiliar to many around the program and about every student on campus too (since nearly all of them were born after Rhody’s most recent trip to March Madness prior to last year).
The NCAAs are just as much a test of wills and experience as they are a simple crapshoot. Mismatched styles, proximity to one campus or another, a streaky shooter — all can derail even the best teams in a vast single-elimination playoff. But at least Rhode Island now controls what it can, that crucial experience factor. No matter how they’re seeded (something beyond what they can affect, even by winning out), that dependence on veterans and having “been there” could end up propelling the Rams to at least the tournament’s second weekend.
Pull that off, and suddenly, this evolves from a nice story of program growth into one about a budding monster in the nation’s smallest state.