Cuttino Mobley scored 586 points (17.1 points per game) in URI’s historic 1998 run. PHOTO CREDIT: www.uri.edu
In the world of college basketball, March means one thing, madness. The top 68 teams in the nation compete for their chance at one shining moment.
But it’s been a long time since the University of Rhode Island has experienced any sort of madness in March.
Although Rhode Island went dancing during the 2017-18 season, we have to go back to the 1998 Ram’s season for the last time URI made it out of the second round.
This run saw the Ram’s dancing all the way into the Elite Eight, taking out a ninth-seeded Murray State, The Big-10 champions one-seeded Kansas squad, and a 13-seeded Valparaiso along the way.
They eventually fell one game short of the Final Four to a third-seeded Stanford in the Elite Eight.
Led by NBA draftees Cuttino Mobley and Tyson Wheeler, this eighth-seeded Ram’s squad was one of the most electric offenses in the country, and in URI history, according to University of Rhode Island Sports Information Director Shane Donaldson.
Together, the duo combined for over 31 points per game, with 17.2 ppg coming from Mobley, and 14.9 from Wheeler.
“The whole season was electric,” Donaldson said, “The guard combination of Tyson Wheeler and Catino Mobley that year… you’re talking about one of the best backcourts that was in the country”.
Not to mention rotational piece Preston Murphy, who despite coming off the bench, could shoot three pointers with the best in the nation, according to Donaldson.
“Preston in his own right was hardly a backup quality player”, said Dondalson. In his words, Murphy established himself as “One of the better three point shooters in the country”.
This roster was not only stacked with two stars at the top, but had the depth to push them deep into the NCAA tournament, according to Donaldson. This squad certainly met, and even exceeded preseason expectations, they found themselves ranked 21st in the preseason top-25 AP poll. At their peak, they climbed up to number 20, and spent most of the year comfortably in the top 25, for a total of nine weeks on the prestigious list.
Mobley and Wheeler led the 98’ Rams to a 25-9 regular season finish, and a 12-4 A-10 record. This was good enough to finish second in the conference, right behind their biggest rival at the time, Temple University.
First year head coach Jim Harrick had his team rolling with supreme confidence during the regular season, which would carry over to the postseason tournament, and rightfully so. Those who paid close attention to this eighth-seeded squad knew that there was more in store to just be content with URI’s first tournament appearance in a decade.
URI’s performance in the round of 64 proved hopeful Rams fans right, with a huge margin of victory vs Murray State. The final score was 97-74. In the blowout victory that saw the Ram’s advance to the round of 32, it was starting forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean and Murphy off the bench who led the team with scoring. Both would finish the game with 16 points.
URI’s stars shined brightest in the round of 32 vs first-seeded Kansas. Mobley would put up an efficient 27 point outing, shooting 52.6% from the floor, and an astounding 77.8% from inside the arc. His backcourt buddy Wheeler put up 20 points in quite the opposite fashion, shooting 50% from three point range. He drained five of them in total.
A 80-75 upset kept the Ram’s dancing through the Midwest region, and onto the Sweet Sixteen. That is where they would meet their lowest ranked opponent, a fellow Cinderella in a 13-seeded Valparaiso.
This time it was Mobley’s turn to let it fly from beyond the arc, he would knock down four of six three point attempts, once again leading the team in points, along with Reynolds-Dean. The two would have 16 points next to their names.
It wasn’t uncommon for our beloved guard duo to take turns putting on a show for rowdy Rams fans, according to Donaldson.
“There was one game where Cuttino went out and made eight three-pointers, to set the single game record”, Donaldson said. “And then the very next game… Tyson went out and made nine three-pointers.”
On the other side of all of URI’s victories throughout the tournament, there were those who they sent home in a veil of disappointment. Our 98’ Ram’s would eventually meet the same fate that 67 others did. They would eventually fall short of their one shining moment in the Elite Eight vs Stanford.
Up six points with just a minute to go, Harrick, his Rams team, and all URI fans could just about taste an appearance in the Final Four, according to Donaldson.
Despite an effort that saw Mobley put up 20 points, and 24 from Wheeler, it was the crucial mishaps in the final minute that left Harrick, his Rams, and their fans with quite a different taste in their mouths.
Stanford would rally to within one point with 32 seconds left play.
The score was 74-73, URI, when they would inbound to Mobley, only to watch him get stripped of the ball that would turn into a three point play, barring a missed free throw, for Stanford.
Wheeler, who as mentioned before, is used to one-upping Mobley, would do so just two possessions later.
Down 76-73, Wheeler was sent to the line after being fouled on a three point attempt. His trip to the line would result in zero points for URI, and a crushing defeat.
Despite the way the season ended, Mobley and Wheeler, and the rest of this team, will go down in Rams history for what they were able to accomplish for the program.
“I was naive at the time,” Donaldson said. “I just assumed that’s the way college sports was at Rhode Island.”
Mobley and Wheeler delivered countless unforgettable moments for URI fans, according to Donaldson. Their success is yet to be repeated.
Wheeler and Mobley certainly made their presence known on the court, but their success, and that of this Rams team, made its presence felt outside of Keaney gymnasium, onto campus, and everywhere you looked, according to Donaldson.
“When you play in a venue like Keaney you truly feel like these are guys that you’re getting to know because you’re so close to them,” Donaldson said. “These were guys that were recognizable on campus.. whether they were in the [Memorial] Union or down and Mackal.”
It was the connection that students felt they had built with the team, that you couldn’t go throughout your days in class, or in the Union, without thinking of or seeing this Rams squad, according to Donaldson.
“You had to make sure that you had gone down and gotten your student ticket ahead of time”, Donaldson said. If you didn’t you’d find yourself watching the game from outside of the student section, according to Donaldson.
Donaldson also mentioned that you did not even have to be a fan of basketball to find yourself in Keaney Gymnasium cheering for this team throughout the entire year.
“Every home event was a social event on campus as well.. You had a couple nights a week where you knew what your social calendar was going to be,” Donaldson said. “You had to make sure that you were seeing this team play.”
Despite the incredible talent of these Rams, and their immense success, it was quite disappointing to watch them fall to Stanford, leaving URI without a Final Four appearance and another shot at inter-conference rival Temple, according to Donaldson.
“Even with as great a run as that was, there is that element of ‘what if’,” Donaldson said. “Which is not to take at all away from what the team accomplished”.
While Donaldson had nothing but great praise for this 98’ team, it is for that same reason that the season finale was a bittersweet moment for Rams fans.
“Rhode Island really was like a minute away from going to the Final Four,” Donaldson said.
‘What if?’ is a question that will remain unanswered forever. Donaldson certainly believed that Mobley, Wheeler, and this squad had what it took to win it all. Something that is without question, and will remain for as long as our University stands, is the legacy that this team carries, according to Donaldson.
“It still gives me goosebumps to think about watching them play,” Donaldson said. “You kinda wish you could go back in time and just watch it again, because it was that much fun to see what they were going to do next”.
While we can never go back, Donaldson says we can look into the future for our program, and see the impact that this team has already made, and will continue to make.
“Without the elite-8 run, the Ryan Center doesn’t exist today,” he said.
“It’s going to be built on the legacy of these guys right here” are the words that Donaldson remembers former governor Lincoln Almond speak as he announced the construction of the new stadium, known today as Ryan Center in 2003.
While URI is yet to have their one shining moment, Archie Miller and his current Ram’s squad will continue to build upon what the 98’ team did for the program.
In due time, we could see URI dancing all the way to the finals, on the hardwood of the Ryan Center that was built on the legacy of the 1998 Rams.