February is now upon us, which means it is now appropriate to begin assessing the scope of the college basketball season. There exists a feeling of faint hope pervading throughout campus, as the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team finds itself walking a fine line between legitimacy and fraudulence. Anything but an NCAA Tournament berth would be deemed a failure after their early season standing as a top 25 nationally ranked team, not to mention a fairly deep and talented roster.
The team has shown flashes of exercising its full potential, but has too frequently fallen back into old habits that may prove costly come Selection Sunday. Time is running out for this team, namely Hassan Martin, whose imminent departure could symbolize the end of the Rams’ all too brief flirtation with “madness.”
It may seem strange to ponder the possibility of a hopeless fate or an impending doom after two solid victories that have them right in the mix for conference supremacy, but after watching this team for the last four years you begin to worry that you are watching the same movie over and over again. They have achieved a great deal, sure, with head coach Dan Hurley reviving a floundering program and making it one that CBS Sports and ESPN2 believed worthy of exposure. The rise began with the recruiting of Martin and E.C. Matthews. The latter has long been touted as the team’s best player, but Martin’s role on the team cannot be overstated, as he is likely URI’s most important player.
“Big Haas” has been a pillar of consistency and success. He has improved each year, developing a more than effective offensive game to complement his dominant defense. Martin is the player the team leans on when they are ice cold from the floor. His authoritative dunks make a big enough impact to ignite the team at any time, in any situation. His persistent presence in the Atlantic 10 mirrors that of the team’s. He has had the occasional injury problems, and when he is absent it is difficult to find a game plan conducive to winning. His presence in the loss versus Houston would have likely resulted in a win that could ultimately prove crucial down the road. Fans certainly love him, but do they really understand how a future without him could be like?
It may seem downright preposterous to lament an uncontrollable phenomenon such as college graduation, but that does not mean his exit will not have a significant impact. Size has long been a question mark with the Rams, but the one thing the Rhody Ruckus could count was Martin’s propensity to overcompensate for his 6-foot-7 frame by consistently altering shots. His timing on a block is one of those subtle, aesthetic delights. He has repeatedly found ways to navigate through a carousel of fellow skilled A-10 forwards. His final walk off the Alex and Ani Court will be one of the most bittersweet moments in the program’s history, as four-year, upper-tier talents are hard to come by in Kingston. It is the very magnitude of that will-be moment, which will transpire on March 4, that should serve as fuel for the rest of team as they prepare to make that playoff push.
Hurley has gone on record to say that his team is playing for Martin in his final year, but they don’t always show it. The Rams, while easily one of the most resilient and scrappy teams in the country, have a pattern of inexplicably faltering in big spots. To call them chokers would be a bit of a stretch, when taking in account the circumstances of some of the devastating defeats, but they have on occasion fallen victim to faulty execution down the stretch. Missed free throws (they’re giving you points, take them) bad turnovers and ill-advised shot attempts have done the Rams in when they need a breakthrough most. There needs to be a sense of urgency in the last couple months of action, but an attention to detail. Truly dedicating the season to Martin, who admittedly has missed big, potentially season-altering free throws in his own right, will depend on the Rams playing the type of consistent basketball that they were expected of, and are perfectly capable of executing. Martin and the team will need to put it all together in these next few important games, none more so than Friday night meeting with reigning conference regular season champs Dayton next week. A collectively strong, winning effort against the Flyers would be doing it for Hassan, as marquee, program-defining wins is what he signed up for back in 2013.
I hate to be the guy that puts blame on everyone, while giving one player a pass, but I don’t think I am. Basketball is obviously a team sport, more than any other (Just ask LeBron James. Three superstars isn’t enough right?) It is, however, also important not to take Martin’s tenure as the clogger in the middle not for granted. Substantial success may follow his departure, but the hype and excitement that currently exists may never truly be the same without the imposing force of ferocity.
The best parting gift for a player synonymous with the restoration of URI’s return to national relevance is to defy the currently shaky odds, win the conference and get fitted for their dancing shoes, thus completing the blueprint Hurley envisioned when he and Matthews first committed. Martin’s senior season needs to be looked as both a proper send-off for one of the program’s most impactful players (same goes for E.C. if he leaves) as well as the fulfillment of a promise to the fans that this year was, and could still be a banner year. Martin’s name may one day be in the rafters of the Ryan Center, and if it does it will need some company.