With a 16-6 record, it is safe to say that University of Rhode Island basketball is, once again, a team the school and its fans can be proud of after three straight years of rebuilding.
The last time this team was close to being this good was in the 1997-1998 season when Cuttino Mobley led the team with 17.2 points per game and Tyson Wheeler provided 14.9 of his own per contest in the season Rhode Island made it to the Elite 8.
Today’s stars are sophomores E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin, who command the team on offense and defense respectively. Â This is the case now, but there were plenty of doubters going into the season.
In fact, it was only 91 days ago today, on Nov. 13, 2014, that center Jordan Hare quit the team for good after regaining his second year of eligibility. To add to the team’s depth problem, Hare’s absence came just one day before the team’s first game against Division-II Pace University, a squad which URI beat handily, 94-54.
Even with Hare’s impact not being absolutely necessary until the start of Atlantic 10 play, Rhode Island fans and local media alike began to buzz about how much trouble the team was in without a dominant big body controlling the paint.
Defense was head coach Dan Hurley’s answer to the critics. The Rams last year lost 12 games by seven or less. This season, the team is 7-3 in such games, and one of just 15 teams nationally to rank among the top 68 in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense. KenPom.com, a nationally regarded website that analyzes college basketball, also placed the Rams 10th nationally in defensive efficiency with 89.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Very few expected URI to be this good. What makes the unit’s performance even more impressive is that there is still plenty of room for improvement. The top four players in terms of minutes are all freshmen or sophomores. Since he has at least two more years to work with every one of these players, Hurley definitely has the chance to make an Atlantic 10 powerhouse out of URI with teams like Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton, Davidson, Massachusetts, St. Bonaventure and Richmond all losing at least one key player to graduation. Granted, most of these teams will recover thanks to recruitments and underclassman settling into those roles.
Thanks to the team’s recent success, especially its 10-1 record at home, the fan attendance has seen a large boost of nearly 1,500 more people per game as well. It is not uncommon to see the Ryan Center almost at capacity on any given game day anymore. The crowd’s energy from games like the win over Nebraska and the heartbreaking loss to VCU have given an obvious boost to players like freshman Jared Terrell, who has made a habit out of pumping up the crowd after key plays.
The Rams are on the cusp of something great. Having the opportunity to go along for the ride will be a worthy way to commemorate one of the school’s potential best teams in program history.