When the final buzzer sounded on Saturday afternoon, following the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball victory over Virginia Commonwealth University, the infamous black cloud that always seems to loom over the Ryan Center in big games dissipated into the atmosphere, and with it the stigma that the Rams are pretenders incapable of rising to the occasion.
The national perception of the team naturally changed, but so too did it locally. Because although the Rhody Ruckus has done an excellent job of masking their qualms and paranoia with an unshakable belief in the team’s ability to play mid-March basketball, we all likely needed a bit of convincing in the form of an ESPN2 aired vanquishing of a conference foe.
Nothing that preceded the win mattered in that moment. There were no Providence or Dayton flashbacks. The fans did not bemoan past injuries or wallow in their seemingly endless misfortune, something they still could do with the team remaining in a precarious position. URI Athletic Director Thorr Bjorn never broke his beaming smile in the press conference room, and the word “finally’’ was uttered every third word as people scattered out of the building in absolute joy. The detectable relief in head coach Dan Hurley’s voice nicely summarized the emotional rollercoaster this program has undergone in such a short period of time. This particular hill had been climbed and conquered with a magnificent performance by Hassan Martin, perfect free throw shooting by Jarvis Garrett, and an utterly complete defensive effort firmly planting the flag to signal the long-awaited victory.
Now the Rams place on the NCAA Tournament bubble is unquestioned. Barring a catastrophic slip-up in either of their last two regular season games, they will likely remain in the conversation until next Sunday night where the brackets will be drawn. There are then only two scenarios that will play out between now and that highly-anticipated date. URI will either send the entire state into a frenzy as they ride a high that is only previously known to the student body via archive footage, or they will suffer the painful realization that their resume was not up to the standards of the selection committee, thus solidifying this group’s legacy as the ultimate “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” cautionary tale that would devastate anyone invested in the program.
Making matters worse is the elephant in the room, despised URI’s interstate rival Providence is also teetering on the bubble and could, realistically, edge out URI if the committee is unable to forget the fact that the Friars defeated them and have scored several notable victories in the more competitive Big East Conference. Sure, Rhode Islanders salivate at the thought of a monumental play-in game in Orlando, Florida that would showcase one of the most underrated rivalries in college basketball, but they also would be wise to remember that their encounters for much of the last decade resembles the relationship between Pedro Martinez and the New York Yankees from 2003-04. The Rams would not concern themselves with any potential match-ups in the tourney considering it has been almost two decades since they have been out dancing. But the idea that Providence could be the final dagger, either directly or indirectly, could be the final chapter in an epic so tragic it would make even Shakespeare squirm a bit in his grave.
The most ideal scenario would see the Rams continue their winning streak into the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament and cut down the nets in Pittsburgh to earn a conclusive, automatic bid. However, words like “ideal” and “URI” do not often pair in the same sentence. This is a fitting end to this ongoing, suspense-filled saga. Whether or not it is a fairytale ending is up to them, and maybe the NCAA. This team and fanbase have endured a lot, but there is no telling of what the impact of such a shortcoming would do to the program, players, and coaches going forward. It is not an exaggeration to say that careers can be defined by the next week and a half.
So, enjoy the victory, prepare for the worst, and soak in every moment of this postseason push because you never know when the chase for March Madness will be headed back this way again.