The University of Rhode Island basketball team begins their quest for an Atlantic 10 title and an NCAA Tournament bid when they host the University of Dartmouth this Friday night at 7 p.m. The sense of hope that permeated throughout the Ryan Center the past couple seasons,

Jon Brock | Jarvis Garrett wearing unique protective mask in February game versus Dayton.
Jon Brock | Jarvis Garrett wearing unique protective mask in February game versus Dayton.

will now be displaced by the expectation that “this really is our year.”

The No. 23 Rams have a deep team with the potential to garner substantial success this season and have the ability to possibly alter the culture and makeup of the program going forward. The future, though is not of concern to the Rhody Ruckus, who will bask in all of national scrutiny the team is likely to receive.  Their attention is preoccupied by their insatiable appetite for the prosperity that has been dangling in front of them for almost two years, and is now fully in their reach.

The lofty expectations for URI comes as no surprise, considering the team was on the fringe of a breakthrough going into last season before injuries robbed them of a chance of fulfilling their potential. This year is supposed to be compensation for the heartbreak that plagued Rhode Island seemingly at every turn last year. They are healthy, and motivated to turn what could have been a lost year into a blessing in disguise, as the starting five figures to be more experienced and proven than ever before. Add in a capable bench that includes Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson, freshman Cyril Langevine and an in-shape Andre Berry, and you have a team destined to be in the top two in the conference standings.

Virginia Commonwealth led by big man Mo Alie-Cox, should be a formidable, but distant third, leaving Dayton as URI’s most difficult hurdle to cross. The Flyers have been a fixture in the A-10 for the last three seasons with the return of the driving-savvy point guard Scoochie Smith and their perimeter threat Charles Cooke, who are both considered all-conference players. The two teams competed in two memorable battles lasts season. The first concluded with a game-winning 3-pointer by Dayton’s Darrell Davis at the Ryan Center, which numbed a crowd still rattled by a Providence buzzer-beater a month earlier. The second game featured the emergence of Berry and an impressive, and fairly comfortable road win for the Rams. The two schools are developing a rivalry that should only escalate as they constitute what should be a two team race for conference royalty.

Conference play is crucial, as the postseason aspirations depend heavily on earning one of the top two spots, as well as a finals appearance in the A-10 Tournament. The non-conference schedule does not boast many big resume boosters. The one circled on calendars, is the meeting with Cincinnati on Nov. 19 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. They both stress defense over offense and should put on an entertaining and a highly-competitive, first-to-60 type of game. The Bearcats are not too far outside of the top 25 in the AP poll, so beating them would not only validate URI’s ranking, but could also serve as a dress rehearsal for a tournament game. The Rams could potentially face No. 1 Duke if they win their first game of two in the mini-tournament. Assuming they do get a crack at the loaded Blue Devils, a deficit lower than 15 would be a victory for a team still looking to acclimate themselves to their new role in the national spectrum.

The key factor is unsurprisingly the return of their best player. E.C. Matthews has been the face of the program, and could one day represent the first inkling of change that potentially gives way to a new prosperous era, but he has also yet to cross the threshold into college superstardom. Last year was supposed to mark his legitimization as an NBA prospect, but after recovering from an opening-day knee injury, he is primed to contend for A-10 Player of the Year. He will not say it of course, but it is undoubtedly unsettling for a player of Matthews’ caliber to be projected as a member of the All-Conference Second Team, a respectable honor, but one ill-fitting for the crafty guard.

Matthews has maintained a positive outlook on the injury, and made the most of his time on the sidelines, but he should be back with a vengeance. Hurley will need Matthews to be in top form, as the Rams’ success, will depend heavily on how the Detroit, Michigan native performs throughout the year, despite the Ram’s depth. Expect Matthews to be aided by the growth of backcourt mate Jarvis Garrett and earn A-10 Player of the Year honors, as he erases the shuddering memory fans have of the star on the ground in agonizing pain.

The 2016-17 season should not disappoint. Hurley has all of the ingredients for a magical run into the tournament, and perhaps even beyond. Fans should be mindful of the shallow A-10, but also excited for the amount of hype that will surround the program. They have the talent, coach and a favorable path that will hopefully lead them to their first ever regular season A-10 title, as well as a berth in the NCAA Tournament. After 17 long years, you could dust off your dancing shoes Rhode Island, because you’re going to need them.