The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball Rams, ranked 23rd in the AP National Poll, competed in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament in Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena over the weekend where they orchestrated a tremendous comeback victory over Cincinnati before falling to No. 3 Duke, 76-66 in the tournament’s final round.

The top-level competition served as a means of gauging the team’s preparedness for the NCAA Tournament, and clearly displayed URI’s strengths and weakness, as they continue to navigate through what figures to be a crucial season for the program. Here is what we now know about the Rams after a wild weekend of action.

Rhode Island is a tournament team

The connotation of a preseason national ranking is usually one that evokes feelings of hope and ambition by a viewing public, but the Rams’ past pitfalls against formidable competition put their status as a top 25 team in doubt, or rather more appropriately, untested. They proved worthy of the number next to their name, after vanquishing a physically imposing, and well-coached Cincinnati team, 76-71. They trailed by double digits in the second half before putting together a monumental 12-0 run, and later securing victory with a couple of clutch baskets in the closing moments. The Bearcats held a lower ranking, but still give URI an impressive resume booster for their NCAA Tournament application in March.

More importantly, the win represented the team’s ability to finally clear the big-game hurdle, slightly alleviating the past qualms of Providence and Dayton, which are indelibly burned into this writer’s memory. E.C. Matthews took control of the game in the second half where he scored 15 of his 18 points, and led the offense to a the finish line, while backcourt mate Jarvis Garrett underwent examination at a local hospital for a neck injury later proven to be minor. Jared Terrell, who is still looking to find consistency in his offensive game, showed that he has ice in his veins when the lights are at their brightest, connecting on a couple of 3-pointers that ignited the key second-half run. He also led the way with an 8-of-15 shooting performance in Sunday’s loss versus the Blue Devils.

URI has the talent and the schedule to earn a tournament berth, and a gritty performance against a ranked opponent on a neutral court, even if it was in reasonably close proximity to their campus, is a big step toward making that loaded potential a successful finished product. Their road games against the mid and top-tier Atlantic 10 teams will ultimately decide if they are indeed the dancing-bound, defensively dangerous team they were on Saturday or the offensively discombobulated bunch they appeared to be on Sunday afternoon.

Matthews must consistently be “the guy” if the team is going to enjoy substantial success.

The Rams gave Duke all they can handle for nearly a whole half, until the Blue Devils, on the strength of their offensive rebounding, mounted a late run to firmly establish control. The Rams were within one point before falling back to an eight-point deficit by halftime. Duke was more grueling competition than Cincinnati, but that is no excuse for the disorganization that plagued URI in the second half. Their shot selection was poor, but most noteworthy was the background role served by an out-of-form Matthews.

The junior guard attempted only seven shots, and at time was nonexistent on the court. He is still getting back into the groove of things, and while this was his first underwhelming performance of a young season, a replicated performance against the Flyers or the VCU Rams would could also result in defeat. His ceiling mirrors that of his team, and it is important for him to live up to his former NBA hype, not just for the sake of his individual career, but in order for the team to solidify themselves as the premier powerhouse in the conference.

The defensive intensity that is synonymous with URI basketball during the Dan Hurley era, which has been made more potent by the addition of Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson, can propel this team to a level as high as the Sweet 16, but only if Matthews takes the reigns and effectively leads his team through battle as he did against the Bearcats. Matthews is the number one option on a deep and talented team, and is more than capable of winning A-10 Player of the Year honors. His legacy though, will be whether or not he is able to, with the aid of a skilled supporting cast, deliver his team to the Promised Land. His play this season has given fans no reason to be overly concerned about one uneven performance, but the game, as well as his absence last season, does show that his importance cannot be over emphasized if the team is going to be playing meaningful basketball well into March.

Overall, the weekend should be looked as a watershed moment, not just the victory, but also the loss, as it is easy to let the scoreboard dismiss the fact that the Rams kept a supremely talented team (even with multiple key injuries) at bay for a lengthy period of time. The Mohegan Sun tourney was a sample size of what the team can achieve, and legitimizes them as a program worthy of the national attention they have been craving for many years.