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Rhode To Nowhere

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


As another season passes without a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team, the promise of brighter days ahead is the only thing keeping Rhody faithful from hanging themselves in the coat closet with their Tyson Wheeler jerseys.

They keep urging us to be patient.

The best is yet to come.

This, too, shall pass. 

Anymore patience on our part and we’ll soon be mental patients, banging our heads against the padded walls drooling from the corner of our mouths and mumbling to our relatives about the night Sly Williams almost single-handedly led the Rams past Duke in the 1978 Tournament. 

It’s been 15 years since Rhode Island qualified for the Big Dance, 15 years since Lamar Odom’s buzzer-beater sank the hearts of the Temple Owls in the Atlantic-10 Tournament to punch Rhody’s ticket to the Field of 64, long before the backyard barbecues with Kris Jenner and Scott Disick in Calabasas. In the era of greasy palms and promiscuous recruiting tactics, that kind of drought is indefensible and downright unacceptable for a school with more than 12,000 undergrads and a state-of-the-art basketball facility in its backyard.

And it’s not as if they haven’t come close. In Jim Baron’s 11 seasons with the Rams in the post-Jerry DeGregorio era, Rhode Island won 20 or more games five times and earned five trips to the NIT, including a spirited run to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in 2010 in which it lost to North Carolina by a single point. Baron’s 2008 team even cracked the Associated Press Top 25 after starting the season 15-2, but wound up falling out favor quickly by losing 10 of its final 16 games.

The ’08 meltdown and subsequent inability to get over the hump and off the NCAA bubble was symbolic of Baron’s tenure at URI. Despite the same promises of bright futures and green pastures being shoved down our throats by current head coach Dan Hurley, Baron’s teams routinely suffered monumental collapses in February and March, right around the time good teams usually begin their final tournament push.

Hurley seems a like a great guy and a tremendous go-getter, the kind of coach who brings passion and hunger, which is awesome if you’re teaching Introduction to International Politics, but not nearly as important as Xs and Os – or recruiting – when your sole objective is to revive a program that’s been on life support for more than a decade. Hurley’s only in his second season, so it’s too early to put him on the hot seat just yet, but it’s also incredibly difficult to preach patience when the program hasn’t been relevant since scrunchies and bucket hats were in style. If Hurley doesn’t start winning as early as next year, he might ultimately pay the price for both DeGregorio and Baron’s sins. 

With the 7,000-seat Ryan Center located on campus, along with the prospect of playing in the new, seemingly stronger, A-10, the Rams have no excuse to be this bad for this long. Even URI’s baseball program, which has nothing more than an on-campus facility as its prime recruiting tool and limited scholarships – not to mention lousy weather in comparison to the major baseball schools – has qualified for more tournament appearances in the past 15 years than the basketball team, advancing to the NCAA Regionals in 2005.

Though it’s hard to imagine now, there was a time when Providence and Rhode Island were No. 1 and 1A in local basketball, even if the Rams have always been the bastard stepchild. With Bryant in the Division I mix, there are now four schools vying for the state’s affection, and URI is the least relevant of them all. Even Bryant is in still in the tournament picture, despite its long odds, and it’s doing it with former Rhody coaches Tim O’Shea and Al Skinner at the helm, another kick in the groin for URI’s floundering program, as if the Friars winning with a six-man team isn’t enough of an insult. Meanwhile in Kingston, the Rams avoided a possible 20-loss season for the second time in three seasons by rallying to beat Saint Bonaventure this past weekend, snapping an embarrassing six-game losing streak dating back to the beginning of February. Think Big. We Do. 

With Hurley’s top recruiting target, Jarvis Garrett, verbally committing to attend URI beginning next fall, there’s hope on the horizon, but the Rams have dragged us down this road before. Three of Rhode Island’s Top 20 all-time scorers played under Baron, so it’s not as if supreme talent hasn’t walked these corridors over the last 15 years. The problem is they all wasted away playing for teams incapable of getting over the hump.

Garrett might be the next Tommy Garrick, but it won’t mean much unless Hurley – or whoever else carries the burden of getting this team back to the Big Dance – ends the drought and gives Rhode Island something else to root for other than legalized marijuana, which is fitting because you’re probably higher than the Superman building if you still think patience is Hurley’s greatest virtue.  


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