Photo by Autumn Walter |CIGAR|

Rhode Island enters NCAA Tournament with chip on their shoulder

The month February and early March for Rhode Island men’s basketball was full of highs and lows. The Rams clinched their first outright Atlantic 10 regular season title in program history, cutting down the nets and celebrating an impressive feat. On the other hand, they lost to St. Joe’s by 30 points on their senior night, while yesterday they lost to the Davidson Wildcats 58-57 in the Atlantic 10 Championship, being held to their third lowest point total on the season.

Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Rams find themselves in a bit of hole following what was one of the most impressive starts to conference play by any A-10 team in recent years after starting 13-0. Don’t let a slump fool you, however, as it has shown in years past that when it is the “Rhode Island vs. everyone” mentality and they have the underdog status, this is a team that no one in college basketball wants to draw come March.

On Selection Sunday, Rhode Island was awarded the No. 7 seed in the Midwest region and will face off against the No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners. Last year, the Rams were awarded the 11 seed and placed in the Midwest region, and upset Creighton 84-72 in the Round of 64 and were a missed three-point shot from E.C Matthews away from forcing overtime against the eventual winners of the region Oregon. While they have a higher seed this time around, and their matchup may not be considered an upset to most, this almost identical roster has been in the same position before and thrives under that underdog pressure.

The Rams have proven they can win games in crunch time.

In the NIT Season Tipoff Tournament at the Barclays Center, Rhode Island was a heavy underdog against the then No. 20 Seton Hall Pirates, and a Jared Terrell layup with 5.2 seconds left in the game sealed the upset victory. Against the Duquesne Dukes on Jan. 27, the Rams had the ball tied at 58 a piece with 28 seconds remaining in the game when Jeff Dowtin found Stanford Robinson open in the corner for a buzzer-beating left corner three-pointer to win the game. Against VCU in the A-10 Quarterfinals, Rhode Island would hit a perfect eight of eight from the charity stripe in the final 51 seconds to quell any talk of an upset.

The Rams have proven they can string together streaks of wins.

Rhode Island’s 16 game winning streak was tied for the third longest winning streak for Division 1 teams this year, at one point being the longest active streak in the country. During their winning streak, the Rams faced tournament bound teams, including the College of Charleston, Iona, St. Bonaventure and Davidson, and their average margin of victory during this streak was 13.1 points per game. They weren’t just getting squeak by wins against these opponents, they were blowing them out in route to a dominant stretch of games.

The Rams have proven they are the type of mid-major program built to make deep runs in the tournaments.

Reminiscent of teams like the 2005-06 George Mason Patriots, 2010-11 Butler Bulldogs and Gonzaga of many years, the Rams are built of senior and upperclassman leadership. In addition, they have one of the deepest backcourts in the country and perfectly embody the “next-man-up” mentality. Many teams that are upset in the tournament are the stereotypical “one-and-done” programs that heavily feature freshmen and emphasize star-power over lack of bench depth. In those type of games, mid-major programs that have built chemistry over the years and have been in the tournament before find success, and this URI team checks all of those boxes.

Rhode Island will be doubted in the first round and potentially beyond, as many analysts may be deterred from their cold skid at the end of the season and their horrible loss to St. Joe’s at the Ryan Center. A team like Oklahoma, who many are chastising for being in the tournament after finishing 8-10 in conference play and losing 11 of their last 15, have the perfect storm of a story, in addition to college basketball’s brightest young star in Trae Young, to advance far in the tournament as they prove the “haters” wrong. Add that to the fact that the A-10 was looked heavily down upon this year and Rhode Island being “just another mid-major,” and the odds are stacked against Rhode Island in that regard.

But this is a Rhode Island squad unlike any I’ve seen. Every member of the backcourt has the capability to score 20 points or more on any single night. Dowtin is one of the best decision makers in the tournament, as his 4.23 assist to turnover ratio is amongst the highest in the nation. Their defense, particularly when they run man-to-man, can shut down any high-scoring and moving offense dead in their tracks. Jarvis Garrett proved this against Providence on Dec. 2, when he held star point guard Kyron Cartwright to two points on one of seven shooting from the floor.

Their front court is highly underestimated, as Andre Berry’s post offense is among the best in the tournament and Cyril Langevine’s ability to crash the glass and defensive motor is hard to match. This Rhode Island team has proven it can hang in with the big dogs, and besides Virginia and the St. Joe’s anomaly they have gone down to the wire and final seconds in every game they have played. Top it all off, this team has one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the country in Dan Hurley, the master recruiter who rebuilt the program from the ground-up.

This will be the last stretch of games for Terrell, Robinson, Berry, Garrett and Matthews, the first domino for Hurley’s recruiting plan to fall. Matthews finished the A-10 Championship with a game high 20 points, the lone Ram in double-digit scoring. After losing a heartbreaker to Davidson, Matthews and Rhode Island hopes their late game stretch was merely an aberration and that they won’t let games like those affect their tournament success.

“I’m proud of my guys, we still got games to play,” Matthews said. “That’s the good part. We’re gonna take [the Davidson loss] on the chin. We’re gonna move forward.”

The tides of this program are slowly turning as Rhode Island continues to be nationally relevant. Teams are becoming aware of the dangers that Rhode Island presents, and each time they play the Rams they know they have an uphill battle to fight to earn their buckets and shut down an elite backcourt. Fans are now beginning to see the transition from a fanbase to a culture, something that Hurley himself acknowledged as he noticed the masses of Keaney blue traveling to support the program.

“Even as brutal as [the Davidson loss] was to take, just walking off the court, it’s hard not to just be so proud of the players and the program and the fans and how it’s grown,” Hurley said. “Now they will follow us to, you know, wherever we get sent…”