“Lamar Odom wins it for Rhode Island! Rhody’s going to the NCAA Tournament!” Those are the words uttered by broadcaster Dave Sims in the 1999 Atlantic 10 Championship game, as he fervidly conveyed a scene of pandemonium and raw emotion following a buzzer beater by future NBA champion Lamar Odom that clichéd URI’s first conference title in program history. It was the second straight year the Rams would go dancing, and would be the last for a very, very long time. For 18 years those words represented the last great triumph of the University of Rhode Island basketball program. It was what the alumni used as nostalgic antidote during all of the years of futility and what the present Rhody Ruckus used as proof of a proud basketball tradition that was once under the national microscope.
But then Cinderella stopped coming to Kingston. The clock would strike midnight earlier and earlier in the season. Dan Hurley’s arrival brought the glass slipper out of the dusty box, but the team fell victim to untimely defensive miscommunications and missed free throws thus delaying their dancing party a bit longer. Now after a long uphill battle, that call by Sims will cease to be one of the remaining remnants of Rhody hoops pride as Hurley’s team officially marked the end of a rebuilding project with a three-game stretch of domination on both sides of the ball. URI Fans can now rent some more space in their cranium for basketball glory as the iconic image of Odom collapsing to the floor in celebration will be joined by one maybe more powerful of Hassan Martin on his knees in an expression of both relief and jubilation.
Now, everything is clicking for the Rams and they are playing like a team trying to make up for lost time. Creighton University in for an arduous test in tomorrow’s Round of 64 matchup in Sacramento, California. Let’s break down URI’s chances as they attempt to become destiny’s darling.
It seems like there is that one Cinderella team each year in the NCAA Tournament that not only has a big day but garners enough momentum to the point where the whole country buys into them as a viable contender. Rhode Island has the necessary tools to fit that bill this year. They are playing their best brand of basketball in the Hurley era and have a favorable draw in their side of the bracket. It all starts with the No. 6 Blue Jays and their NBA-bound redshirt freshman center Justin Patton.
The No. 11 Rams have forced their way into national relevance on the strength of their stingy defense, which limits teams to about 65 points per game and 29 percent 3-point shooting. It is their recently ignited offense, however, that makes them a popular pick to upset Creighton and maybe even the No. 3 Oregon Ducks in the following round. E.C. Matthews has reemerged as the star guard he was before his season-ending knee injury in last year’s opener. He earned A-10 Tournament MVP honors for a premium display that included more than 18 points per game over the weekend stretch. His rebirth has been infectious for the whole team who found their shooting stroke in the Tournament, one that could give them an edge over a Creighton squad that has not been the same since they lost their point guard Maurice Watson Jr. earlier in the season.
The Rams, winners of their last seven, are coming in ablaze while Creighton has lost five of their last 10 and is still looking to reclaim their midseason form. The game has all of the makings of a back-and-forth affair that the Rams could swoop in and take at the end. The keys to the game will be Matthews and Martin, which is obvious given their roles on the team, but is even more true when considering the fact that their matchups could dictate the pace of the game. Patton at 7-foot-1 can make things hard on A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Martin, who with his 6-foot-7 frame has struggled with true big men in the past. Patton will be like nothing he has seen in conference play in terms of offensive versatility, but if Hurley employs freshman Cyril Langevine in a similar matter he did in the A-10 title game then URI might be able to keep him out of rhythm. They may feel inclined to give up points in the paint and apply their patented smothering perimeter defense which could be an equalizer for the Rams. Patton, despite the advantage in size, will have his hands full too with Martin, who now has a polished post game arsenal that is difficult to stop. He is the guy they go to when they in the midst of a scoring drought, and if he can muscle his way through Creighton’s interior then the momentum should swing in Rhody’s favor.
Matthews provides URI with an offensive punch that is needed at the end of close games. He has shown himself to be capable of putting games away with strong drives, step-back threes or even hellacious dunks like the one he used in overtime against the University of Davidson. Matthews shooting stroke is as deadly as ever and if the Rams are going to continue to be the three-and-D team they were in their conference tournament then it will likely be because Matthews is leading the charge. Matthews will need to venture into the paint as well as the Rams are at their best when they draw out the defense to make room for a cutting Martin. Junior point guard Jarvis Garrett will also be an X-factor and help with keeping up with Creighton’s fast-paced offense.
The onus will be on Hurley to keep his guys mentally locked in because the Tournament is not kind to teams who turn over the ball and miss free throws. Rhode Island looked the part in Pittsburgh and will need to continue to play smart basketball going forward if it wants to make history. Their defense will be thoroughly tested against a squad that shoots nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc, but the Rams have the length and two players who can take over a game. The Blue Jays, led by Marcus FOster’s 18.3 points per game, possess more offensive depth though, which means that the Rams will need to have an edge on toughness. The Rams have been involved in plenty of tight contests, losing to Dayton twice by a combined three points, but they have seemed to benefit from their crunch time missteps and are now making winning plays.
Expect another close game for URI in which their defense makes Creighton’s top-tier offense work hard to get into the mid 60s. The Rams have finally reached their full potential and Creighton does not appear to be at its best despite reaching the Big East final. The Rams have peaked at the right time and enter the tournament with an air of legitimacy which had long been questioned. URI is playing with such intensity that that Cinderella’s magic pumpkin my not be needed in this one.
Prediction: URI 68 Creighton 64