The NCAA Tournament is often referred to as “The Big Dance,” but it is more like a lavish and highly lucrative ball. The NCAA spares no expense to hold its annual extravaganza, or what has rather become a cultural ritual of skipping work or feigning illness to consume more than twelve hours straight of college basketball. In turn, they expect their guest list to match the prestige of the event.
There are those like Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky who do not even need an invitation to find their place at the front table. Their status as the aristocratic elites is unquestioned, while second-tier powerhouses like Gonzaga desperately try to schmooze their way into the inner circle before reluctantly accepting their place as the highly respected but unproven B-lister. And you can’t forget about the little guys like Mount Saint Mary’s or UNC Wilmington, who may seem like charity cases but are actually the nothing-to- lose saboteurs who have grown tired of their standing-room only designation at the event. Above all else, you need to have a résumé worthy to gain entry to this gathering of VIPs.
Simply put, there is no riff-raff allowed. That is a category that has long included the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball Rams, a team long considered to be more personality than substance, having struggled to amass credentials that would persuade the bouncer to look the other way. Now, with a list of accomplishments that includes victories over Cincinnati and VCU, both of whom are pulling coat-watch duty for the aforementioned elites as we speak, URI has moved to the front of the line anxiously waiting for their name to be found on the 68-team list. Oddly enough, however, the thing that may just get the party crashers past the red velvet rope is a win against a mediocre Davidson squad, which showcased all of the qualities deemed indicative of a team bound for the ball.
The Wildcats (15-14, 8-10) may seem like a must-win game that should do little to put the Rams over the top, but Saturday night’s overtime classic saw Dan Hurley’s group of resilient, defensive-minded scrappers prevail in a battle that nicely summed up the team’s harrowing journey to this point. All of URI’s greatest fears made an appearance in what appeared to be the funeral for their NCAA tourney bid prospects. They came back down nine with about six minutes to go, took the lead only to watch it vanish before their eyes as a missed free throw gave way for a game-tying 3-pointer by Jack Gibbs. It is a movie we all know line for line.
Then came the all-too-familiar misstep on the last possession, which in this case was a five-second violation that had everyone foaming at the mouth. This time, however, the Rams were not going to be left picking up the pieces of their shattered heart as a Stanford Robinson block not only extended the game but also put this team in a whole new light.
It became clear in the five minutes of extra play that URI was playing with a visible rage. Finally the desperation soaked in, as they came to the realization that another opportunity to make the tournament, their last with Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, was about to be snatched away. A look down the alternative path, the losing one, and you may shudder to think about what the aftermath of such a stinging defeat would have done to this program. But we don’t have to as E.C. Matthews unloaded a year’s worth of frustration in the overtime period, culminating with a vicious dunk near the one-minute mark that seemed more therapeutic than his rehab for his knee could have ever been. The crowd, in that moment, was experiencing an array of emotions- love for their seniors, relief that they won, and the sad realization that they likely lost ten years of their lives watching a heart-in-throat thriller. But most of all they felt satisfaction in that the final product of the team they had been envisioning for years had finally come to fruition.
Obviously, the struggle is not over as the Rams are still considered to be just outside the bubble on leading ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s projected bracket, but could tip the scale in their favor with a with a strong showing in the A-10 Tournament. The selection committee might need to see a finals appearance to be absolutely convinced of their legitimacy, but the Rams have exorcised their demons. No longer are they cursed by the corner three, as Peyton Aldridge’s wide open miss in the overtime almost seems symbolic of the team turning a new leaf, and at the best possible time.
So keep checking that NCAA list because URI is pressed against the rope, with the ballroom in sight. After three years of waiting, they now have the look of a team ready to march into madness and onto the dancefloor for the first time in this century.