The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team was projected to finish second in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll and predictions, which coupled with other national rankings, adds validity to the credence that the Rams should be NCAA Tournament bound for the first time in 18 seasons.

The Dayton Flyers were pegged as the team to beat for the second consecutive year, as Scoochie Smith and Charles Cooke return for one more year to a team that won 25 games last year en route to their third straight NCAA Tournament. Dayton received 16 first-place votes and a total of 374 points, which was four points better than URI, who received 12 first-place votes.

The debate about who is the class of the conference has lingered since the end of last season, as the Rams figure to be in the conversation with a lineup that has plenty of experience and talent. Jarvis Garrett, E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell, Kuran Iverson and Hassan Martin make up what is anticipated to be the conference’s most dangerous starting five.

The Rams and Flyers could have the makings of a scorching hot rivalry if the projections hold true, especially with the memorable contests both teams put forth in 2016. Junior guard Darrell Davis put a dagger through the hearts of Rhody fans when he hit a corner 3-pointer for a game winner that pushed the moribund Rams into the proverbial coffin, and then nailed it shut. URI, however, claimed revenge on the road in what could only be described as junior big man Andre Berry’s coming out party, as he went 7-for-7 from the field with 15 points in the 75-66 win. The potential of both teams claiming a spot in the rankings could make for an eruptive atmosphere that will surely garner national attention.

Virginia Commonwealth, who shares the title of reigning regular season A-10 co-champions with Dayton and St. Bonaventure, came in third, with 340 points. The Commodores are always a threat, proving their viability without long time head coach Shaka Smart last year with an upset run over Oregon State in the tourney, followed up by a battle with powerhouse Oklahoma.

The Rams received further praise from the A-10 in the form of individual honors. Matthews, who gets a year of eligibility back because of last year’s injury, and Martin, a senior were both named to the All-A-10 preseason Second Team, which despite being a step down from last year’s First Team shows the depth the Rams will boast in what many consider a career defining year for fifth-year head coach Dan Hurley. Matthews will accustom himself to the new starting unit as fans were deprived an opportunity to see a potential NBA draft pick lead the offense for a sample size larger than 10 minutes. Martin will look to repeat as A-10 Defensive Player of the year, again handling the center duties, while trying to build his own case for an NBA job. It will likely be an emotional and celebratory day on senior night when the the duo that have changed the perception of the program share the Alex and Ani court for the final time.

The A-10 preseason First Team is comprised of Davidson guard Jack Gibbs, who is also Bob Cousy Award watch list, George Washington forward Tyler Cavanaugh, St. Bonaventure guard Jaylen Adams, Cooke from Dayton and forward T.J. Cline of Richmond. Matthews and Martin are joined on the Second Team by Dayton guard Smith, La Salle guard Jordan Price and VCU big man Mo Allie-Cox.

The Rams have an opportunity to be this year’s next darling, as they look dust off their dancing shoes for March Madness and possibly solidify themselves as the conference’s next Dayton, which with the players likely to return next year and the new recruits coming in could make for a hectic next few seasons in the Ryan Center.

Stay tuned for our own predictions of the Rams in the coming weeks.