The year was 1999. The average price of gas was $1.30. Kurt Warner, Dick Vermeil and the St. Louis Rams were coined, “the greatest show on turf,” and the team to beat in the NFL. And the starting five for the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team was Preston Murphy, Antonio Reynolds-Dean, Tavorris Bell, Luther Clay, and Lamar Odom.
1999 was the last year the URI Rams had won the Atlantic 10 Championship and played in the NCAA Tournament.
After the memorable 1999 season then head coach Jim Harrick left for Georgia. Odom departed for the NBA. Eventually the core players in Reynolds-Dean and Murphy graduated. Rhode Island had quickly gone from an Elite 8 squad in 1998 to a team struggling to get double-digit win totals.
Rhode Island fans suffered for 18 years. The Rhody faithful watched two seasons from 1999 to 2001 of Rams hoops under head coach Jerry DeGregorio, who averaged just six wins in his two seasons at the helm.
Ram fans saw 11 seasons of successful basketball under Jim Baron. Baron coached the Rams to six 20-plus win seasons and was three times awarded A-10 Coach of the Year honors. Despite compiling 184 wins during his tenure with URI, the Rams never made the NCAA tournament.
On March 20, 2012 a new era arrived in Kingston when URI named Dan Hurley as the 19th men’s basketball head coach in the school’s history. With Hurley running the show Rhode Island saw the tides start to turn back in their favor. Hurley quickly transformed the program into a legitimate A-10 competitor in just two seasons.
The 2015-2016 season was supposed to be the year for Rhode Island, but it ended up being a lost one as star guard E.C. Matthews tore his ACL just 10 minutes into the season. The fans were left wondering what could have been, and once again waiting for that elusive trip back to the “Big Dance.”
Without Matthews, URI was a .500 club. Rhode Island finished 17-15 on the season and 9-9 in A-10 play.
Then, the 2016-2017 season began. With a healthy Matthews and a senior frontcourt comprised of Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, Rhody was destined to make a run into March. They entered the preseason polls as No. 23 in the country, as it finally looked like the Rams were a true shoe-in for the NCAA tournament. However, the road to March was often unclear for URI. They dropped critical road games in nonconference play. They lost Martin and starting guard Jarvis Garrett to injury and illness as conference play began. The lowest point of the Rams season came on Feb. 15. Just five days after the Rams dropped a heartbreaker to the Dayton Flyers at the Ryan Center in Kingston they would lose their second straight game to the Fordham Rams 53-43 at home in Kingston.
Hurley called this loss the worst loss he had suffered as the head coach of Rhode Island. At that moment, it appeared to be a certain death sentence for their postseason aspirations, but as time would tell it was exactly what the Rams needed.
After the loss to Fordham, Rhode Island would rattle off nine straight wins. URI rode into the A-10 Tournament as the No. 4 seed in the conference, but handily defeated each of their three opponents-St. Bonaventure, Davidson and VCU in that order to win their second A-10 Championship. In 120 minutes of game time play in the A10 tournament, URI trailed for just 43 seconds.
With the victory, the Rams were no longer on the tournament bubble as they received an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The dream had become a reality and Rhode Island was dancing at long last.
Despite the ups and downs of the 2016-2017 regular season Hurley lined out two goals for his squad going into the season. “The NCAA tournament is our goal,” Hurley said at the beginning of the season. “Our two goals are to win a conference championship and get to the NCAAs.”
With the first goal reached, playing in the NCAAs was the next item to cross off the Rams list. URI experiences a year of first during their 2017 season. Rhode Island won their first game at the Mullin Center in Amherst vs. UMass in the Hurley era. The Rams got a victory at St. Joseph’s for the first time with Hurley at the helm. They also beat VCU for the first time under Hurley. While all these accolades are worth noting, the biggest one was getting to the big dance.
“This is great for these guys,” Hurley said about his team playing in the NCAA tournament. “These guys committed to this program on a plan, on a dream of what we could accomplish as they got older. This so amazing for our players, for the school, for our fans who have suffered for many years, and our state.”
As the Rams marched into the tournament as a No. 11 seed, No. 6 Creighton University would be the team to beat in the round of 64 at the Golden 1 Arena in Sacramento, California. Creighton was beat up. They lost star player Maurice Watson earlier in the year and had gone 7-8 since losing him. Rhode Island, the ultimate opportunist took advantage and was able to advance to the round of 32 for the first time since 1998 after downing the Bluejays 84-72. All five of Rhode Island starters scored in double figures.
The dream was cut short for the Rams in the round of 32 when they fell to the University of Oregon Ducks 75-72. URI led by double digits early in the second half, but could not handle the Ducks down the stretch. Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey hit a three to tie the game at 72 and the eventual game winner with less than 20 seconds to play to give the Ducks a three-point lead.
As the team walked off the court in Sacramento there were tears, sober faces, and the look of pure devastation. The Rams struggled down the stretch without Martin who finished with zero points and zero rebounds. Hurley would announce in his postgame press conference that Martin had been battling a knee injury since the A10 tournament.
Before entering the locker room as the team made their way off the court Hurley was still behind his team and reminding them that some things cannot be controlled. As all the Rams’ heads were down, Hurley’s head remained up. “That is a great effort,” Hurley said to his team. “An amazing effort. Could not have done more. Couldn’t be prouder. Amazing. Some things you can’t control.”
The loss will sit with the Rams for the entire off-season. The Rams lose both Martin and Iverson to graduation, so rebuilding their front line is a large task. However, the Rams bring back five seniors next year and also Jeff Dowtin and Cyril Langevine who impressed in their freshman campaigns.
Hurley noted in his final press conference of the season that he will miss the likes of Martin and Iverson who have both matured and developed in their years with URI. However, the future is bright for Rhode Island.
Rhode Island did much more than win a NCAA tournament game in their 2017 season. This team conquered far more than could be imagined. The Rams did something deeper and stronger than winning any game. Rhode Island gave themselves an identity. An identity built on hard work, tough defense and true determination.
URI basketball, under the leadership of President David Dooley, Athletic Director Thor Bjorn, and Hurley, are back on the college basketball map. It had been 18 years since the last trip to the NCAAs for URI but it will not be another 18 before they make it again. The grit, intensity, and desire to succeed is brewing in Kingston. Hurley has turned Rhode Island from a team into a program.