Feature

Return of the Rams

After last season’s epic NCAA run, the URI men's basketball team has their eye on the prize

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Shortly before the Rams stepped out onto the Ryan Center court for their first official practice of the 2017–18 men’s basketball season, Coach Dan Hurley debuted a short video of highlights from the team’s unexpected NCAA run the previous year.

Flashing clips of the Rams knocking down six-seed Creighton and taking third-seeded Oregon to within three points were the same images that had run through the players’ heads nonstop during the long off-season. They could still feel the energy of that season in their bones, and see themselves back on the court every time they took a jump shot, practiced a free throw or heard those magic words: March Madness.

Luckily for URI fans, the squad that finally overcame a nearly two-decades-long NCAA drought is remarkably similar to the one that will take the court this year. The team graduated only one starter, and E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell, both in their final year, will enter the season with the second-highest combined scoring of any two players in college basketball. Their partnership, which has produced 2,701 points over three seasons, has lifted expectations that the team is better positioned than any in recent memory.

Rather than surprise observers with a run in the Atlantic-10 Tournament once again, Providence Journal sports reporter Bill Lynch predicts that the Rams will earn their spot in the NCAAs at the top of the Atlantic 10 Conference, where they finished third last year. According to Lynch, it’s obvious where the credit for the Rhody revitalization lies. “Coach Hurley did a good job early on taking over a program going in the wrong direction,” says Lynch. By offering players like Matthews and Terrell playing time from day one, he was able to attract players and cultivate the kind of team culture that produces championship runs. And, according to Lynch, “we’re seeing the results of that culture now.”

Hurley, too, is seeing the results. Just a few months after the end of the season, Hurley signed a two-year contract extension – his fourth extension overall with the Rams – that will keep him in Rhode Island through at least the 2023–4 season.

Now, for the first time in years, URI is drawing favorable comparisons to Ed Cooley’s Providence College Friars, who joined them in the NCAA last season, but who went home without a win after falling to USC in the first four. Thanks to strong fundraising, TV deals and practice facilities, the Friars have cultivated the kind of team that makes them a regular presence in March Madness. But when the two teams meet on December 2 at the Ryan Center, it will be anyone’s game.

The Friars may have a seven-year streak in their favor, but Coach Hurley has already shown that he can turn out a URI team that does the unexpected. The real question will be how his team adjusts from the incredible highs of March to the ups-and-downs of a long season. In fact, the off-season has already produced one headline that seems destined to detract, at least somewhat, from the Rams’ pre-season preparation.

On September 14, during a concert in the Ryan Center, assistant coach Tyron Boswell was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and placed on administrative leave by the university. According to the Providence Journal, he had entered the men’s bathroom to try to break up a fight that involved members of the basketball team, but “started yelling and swearing.” He was asked by the police to leave, but refused and was placed under arrest.

As the team moves toward conference play, questions about the impact of losing of an assistant coach a few weeks before pre-season may percolate. After all, the high expectations for URI will soon be tested for the first time, and even those with absolute faith in Coach Hurley recognize the serious challenges of the Atlantic Conference. Conference rivals Seton Hall and Virginia Commonwealth University are expected to present major roadblocks, and St. Bonaventure boasts the only duo with a greater combined career output than Matthews and Terrell.

Additionally, the team faces a long road to conference play, including opening against UNC Asheville on November 10, and shortly thereafter a face-off against Nevada, the reigning Mountain West champs. Whether these early challenges dent the momentum that carried the Rams through March may ultimately decide the team’s fate. 

Hurley argues that by freeing the team from the specter of a 20-year drought, Rhody’s strong performance last season is not a source of stress, but rather a welcome relief.

“Having that long drought, that burden became a little bit heavier ever year,” Hurley says. “Now, it’s less about the expectations of others and more about us wanting to get back, put together a great season, and get back on that stage again.”

And Hurley is confident that getting back on that stage will power the team through any upcoming obstacles – even the loss of a dominant senior class in the coming year.

“Our goals will be the same moving forward: try to win championships and get to the NCAA tournament,” says Hurley.

That’s why Hurley showed his team the video from last year’s tournament on the very first day of practice. He understands that competing in the Big Dance is the ultimate reward for players and coaches. It drives recruitment and defines careers. And once you get a taste, nothing else is quite as satisfying.