Can Rhode Island Make An NCAA Run?

This has been a banner year for Rhode Island basketball—quite literally, as the school has clinched the first outright conference championship in school history, running away with the Atlantic 10. It must be something about the eighth year of a decade—in 1988, the Rams upset Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament and made the Sweet 16. In 1998, they got to a regional final and lost a heartbreaker to Stanford. Twenty years later, after a long drought, they’re back as a team to be taken seriously in the March Madness bracket pools.

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Dan Hurley—the brother of Arizona State coach and Duke legend Bobby—is in his sixth year at Rhode Island. Hurley inherited a program that hadn’t been to the NCAAs since 1999 and was coming off a 24-loss season. By 2015, he had reversed that and posted a 23-win season. Last season, Rhode Island won their first-ever conference tournament title, made it back to the Dance and won the first game. Now this season, Hurley has his team winning a historic A-10 title and projected as a 6-seed for the NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.

If the Rams are going to make an impact this March—and let’s define that by winning at least two games, meaning one of those is likely an upset of a Final Four contender in the Round of 32, they are going to do it veteran guards.

Jared Terrell is the team’s leader. A 6’3” senior, Terrell averages 18ppg and hits 41 percent from behind the arc. He’s joined by another senior, 6’5” E.C. Matthews, who’s good for 13 per game. Still another senior, Stanford Robinson, is the team’s leading rebounder at 6’4”, getting six boards a night to go with his 10 ppg. And none of these players actually run the offense—that honor goes to a sophomore, 6’3” Jeff Dowton, who dishes six assists per night.

It’s a cliché to say that college basketball is a guard’s game, but it’s a cliché that’s 100 percent accurate. And as far as the experience goes—in today’s game, you need to be on one extreme or the other. A handful of programs, notably Duke and Kentucky, can rely on an elite freshmen bound for this June’s NBA lottery. The rest of the world that doesn’t haul in 5-star recruits, has to counter that with a veteran team that overcomes a talent gap with cohesive play. Rhode Island has that going for them.

What the Rams don’t have going for them is size. The careful reader will have noticed that none of the players mentioned is taller than 6’5”. Rhode Island’s two biggest players—Andre Berry and Cyril Langevine, who each go 6’8” average less than twenty minutes of floor time per game. Even in a basketball world that’s gone small, this lineup is too small.

The resume backs up the concern over how the Rams will match up against teams in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve lost to most of the good non-conference teams they’ve played—Nevada and Alabama, along with an expected loss to Virginia. Rhode Island did win their in-state rivalry game with Providence, who is currently expected to make the NCAA field. But the Rams split with St. Bonaventure, the only other notable team in the A-10 and they were recently crushed by thirty at home against St. Joe’s.

If you’re a Rhode Island backer, you point out the St. Joe’s game was an anomaly that may have been the result of a hangover from clinching the outright league championship days earlier. Fair enough. And you can also point to the smart money in Las Vegas. The Rams are listed at 50-1 to win the national championship.

Now, no one seriously expects Rhode Island to cut down the nets on Monday night under any circumstance, but that price is notable for this reason—it’s the same odds Kentucky, currently on a four-game winning streak, is going for. Say whatever you want about this being a bit of a down year for Big Blue—if Rhode Island is seen in the same neighborhood as Kentucky by the smart money, I’m going to take that seriously.

Matchups will tell a lot about how far this team can go—if they get a draw where a big man won’t overpower them, the Rams can do some noteworthy damage to the bracket.