The University of Rhode Island basketball team took center stage Tuesday as part of their annual media day, as the team embraced the immense pressure and hype that the program has been craving for almost two decades.
The Ryan Center was filled with an air of hope, not the false sense that has permeated through Kingston the last couple years, but one legitimized by URI’s No. 23 ranking in the AP Poll and a healthy and deep roster capable of launching Rhody basketball into the national spotlight. The top 25 standing, their first time since the 1998-99 season, marks the peak of the Dan Hurley era, as the fifth-year URI head coach has taken significant strides in establishing a program that has once again instilled pride within the Ram community.
Hurley, who could be a hot ticket in the offseason coaching carousel if his team performs as projected, has wasted little time in crafting a competitive program that is now on the national radar.
“We’ve put together a strong, high level program,” Hurley said. “We check most of the boxes. Veteran team, we have shooting, we’ve got guard play, got size, got depth, great culture. It’s exciting.”
Health will central to the team’s success, even with a deep bench, with the Rams enduring plenty of anguish a year ago after losing star guard and possible NBA draft selection E.C. Matthews in the first half in the opening game due to a right knee injury. His absence was immediately felt as the team proceeded to lose almost every high-profile game they played in competitive, but agonizing fashion. The injury bug did not take long to spread and it infected almost the entire starting lineup, including reigning Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year Hassan Martin, who missed the last four games of the season, and was banged-up throughout.
Hurley knows how important it is to have the two pillars of the program back in the lineup, recognizing that the two were first to infuse new life into URI basketball when he recruited them more than four years ago.
“It’s hard to recruit first team, all-conference, player-of-the-year types,” Hurley said. “They have a lot of skill, a lot of production, their maturity as players helps a ton.”
Matthews refused to let the injury break his spirit, as he took on a mentor role from the bench, maintaining the same leadership he exercised on the court. He turned the devastating experience into a positive one by supporting his teammates as he strived to be a “mini-Hurley.” Matthews, who “couldn’t be any healthier,” is now ready to compete again.
“I was probably sad the first two days, and I then I was like ‘forget it,’” Matthews said. “A lot of people come back from this and I wanted to be one of those people who make this their story. It gives me a new edge, a different confidence because of going through this. It’s going to be a surreal moment being back and playing in front of fans, but that’s what I like.”
The team, while not ranked last preseason, had lofty expectations due to the capability of their starting five, which Matthews was deprived of joining for longer than ten minutes. The shooting guard will soon return to their side, but will have to adjust to playing with Jarvis Garrett, Jared Terrell, Kuran Iverson and Hassan Martin, all of whom improved during his absence. Matthews, however, has no qualms about the chemistry, and is proud of the growth the team has underwent over the past season.
“We have to get used to playing with each other, but it’s going to be an exciting and fun year,” Matthews said. “I was right there watching them grow. Jarvis, JT (Terrell) and Hass (Martin) all carried the team at a certain point in time, and now you’re adding me back, that makes like a whole confident five.”
URI as a whole is hungry for A-10 supremacy as well as an NCAA Tournament berth, especially following the cloud of disappointment that loomed over the Alex and Ani Court for much of last season. Injuries along with the consistent inability to claim a marquee victory, something that plagued the Rams in 2014-15 as well, made for an overall heartbreaking year, but one that the players feel only made them stronger for the road ahead.
“It was tough when all that happened but now we’ve overcome it,” Garrett said of the tumultuous year. “It’s a new season, everybody’s fresh, everybody’s 100 percent. Now we’re just ready to attack the season.”
Despite the depth and talent URI boasts, there are bound to be questions concerning their ranking, with some spectators deeming it undeserved as the team is still in search of their first A-10 Championship in this century, but Coach Hurley believes his guys have earned all of their preseason praise, and hopes that they relish the moment.
“We’ve got a target now and we want the guys to embrace it, get excited about it,” Hurley said. “It’s nothing to be nervous or anxious about, it’s something you should be excited about. It doesn’t happen here a lot. It’s certainly not a birthright with this program. Enjoy it.”
The fans certainly will enjoy the ride. The Rhody Ruckus hopes this season lacks the turbulence of the last, and instead brings the opportunity for not just the team, but the whole NCAA Tournament-ravenous community, to go dancing in March.
The season begins when the No. 23 Rams host Dartmouth on Saturday, Nov. 11.