Where Are They Now?: Tyson Wheeler of the 1998 Rhode Island Rams
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
It's been fourteen years since the URI men's basketball team went on the greatest run in school history, stealing the hearts of fans-nation wide and providing lifelong memories for Rhode Islanders who still can't believe the mid-major school from Kingston came within a breath of the Final Four.
The 1998 Rams weren't just any Cinderella team. URI crashed the ball, kidnapped the DJ, and refused to leave before 3 am. Led by head coach Jim Harrick, guards Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley and forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean, the eighth-seeded Rams went 22-8 during the regular season and thumped Murray State, 97-71, in the first round.
Then, they stunned the nation by taking down Paul Pierce and top-seeded Kansas, 80-75, in one of the biggest second-round upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Jayhawks fans remain bitter about that loss to this day, as Kansas had been 34-2 up until that point.
Despite falling just short of basketball immortality and a trip to the Final Four, the 1998 URI team remains beloved in the state for everything it accomplished.
We caught up with Tyson Wheeler, now an assistant coach at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and asked him about his memories from that magical run.
GO LOCAL: What comes to mind when you think back to 1998?
WHEELER: Just how much fun it was. You know, playing in the moment. Coming together as a team, and doing something no other Rhode Island team had done. It was a great experience to go through with the guys that we had on that team because almost all of us were there together for 3 or 4 years so we all grew up basically as brothers. It was fitting for us to go that far in '98.
GL: Do you think that connection is what made you guys so good on the court?
WHEELER: Definitely. I think we all set a goal from when we first stepped on campus to be really, really good and put URI on the map. We all felt that we could play at a high major level, but for some reason we didn't get recruited at a high-major level. We all played with a chip on our shoulder to show everybody that we could compete with the best teams in the country, no matter who they were.
GL: When you think about the Kansas game, what jumps out at you?
WHEELER: Just the way we were competing against them. I can still remember thinking at some point in the game that, y'know, these guys really feared us. You could see by the way they looked, the way they were playing, they knew they were in trouble.
It's funny, because I still see Paul [Pierce] from time to time and he always tells me, "You ended my college career." That always sounds good, coming from him.
GL: When you think about that year, do you think more about that game or the Stanford game [in the Elite Eight]?
WHEELER: I think both, but it hurts more when you lose, so you tend to think about that more. That was my last college game and we were right there to go to the Final Four and we didn't complete the game.
GL: Do you ever watch that game on Youtube?
WHEELER: Nah, I haven't watched it in a while. I've watched it a couple of times, but I have to turn it off when things start going bad. It's a game that we will never forget.
GL: Do you think about those free throws you missed at the end? (Wheeler was fouled on a three-point attempt and missed three free throws, one intentionally, with 5 seconds left and URI trailing Stanford by three).
WHEELER: Not too much anymore. When I was still playing, it crossed my mind a lot when I was shooting foul shots. I struggled from the foul line for the next few years after that, because I would always think about that.
GL: Did you ever get over that, and become a good free throw shooter?
WHEELER: Yeah, y'know, my last five or six years I shot about 85-plus percent. I got over it, and I started knocking down foul shots like they were layups.
GL: What would you tell a kid on your team if he was in that type of situation?
WHEELER: I would definitely tell a kid to think of something positive, or say something positive while you're about to shoot. Have a keyword that you can go to every time you shoot. So you're not thinking about the shot, you're just thinking about the word and following through and making the shot.
GL: What was it like to play for coach Harrick?
WHEELER: It was a great experience. You know, it was very different than Al Skinner's style of play. Something i had to get used to. I enjoyed the UCLA offense.
GL: How excited where you guys when you heard that Jim Harrick, who won the title in 1995 and had that type of pedigree, was coming to Rhode Island?
WHEELER: Oh, very excited. Actually Antonio and I were on the committee to pick a coach and we were so excited because like you said he just won a championship. They had a guard like myself in Tyus Edney, so that got me excited. We both had a similar style of play. We liked to push the ball, we liked to shoot, we liked to penetrate. I knew it would be a great fit for myself. It also helped Cuttino Mobley a lot, to expand his game, handle the ball more and show the different ways he could play and show his talent.
GL: What do you think made coach Harrick so successful?
WHEELER: I think it was his coaching style, and the offense that we ran. It was a free offense, you had to know the game, you had to have a high basketball IQ. I think he prepared us like that. You also had to have guys who can shoot the ball.
GL: A lot of your teammates from '98 are now assistant coaches. Why do you think that is?
WHEELER: I think we have a passion for the game. We came up with great coaches like coach [Al] Skinner, coach Ed Cooley, coach [Bill] Coen, now head coach at Northeastern, Tim O'Shea now the head coach at Bryant. We were taught by some great coaches, and we have the passion for the game, we wanted to make players better. And it's totally different from playing. You've gotta really, really think the game and come up with concepts to beat the other team. As a coach, you have to make sure you guys are well-prepared.
GL: What is your ultimate career goal?
WHEELER: I definitely want to be a head coach one day. That's my goal. Right now, I'm learning and I still have a lot more to learn, but my goal is to get to the top of this profession.
GL: Is there a moment you realized that your team was coming together during the season?
WHEELER: I don't know, we had our bumps and bruises early on in the season. But we finally figured out how to run the offense that coach wanted us to run, and I think that we just had a type of swagger where we thought we could compete with anybody. Jim Harrick brought his offense in, but we had our team set and our guys. We knew what each other could do on the court. I think we were well prepared, we were a veteran team, and whether Jim Harrick was there or Al Skinner was there, I think we still would have went far in the tournament.
GL: What do you think about Jim Harrick and the problems he's had with the NCAA?
WHEELER: Well I mean, a lot of college coaches get in trouble for violations and stuff like that. I don't think he did anything wrong when I was there. I know for sure our team didn't have any problems…we went out there and did everything by the book and we were out there to compete. It was a great run. I can't speak for what he did at Georgia or what he did at UCLA, but I know at Rhode Island everything was by the book.
GL: What do you think URI needs to do to get back to national prominence?
WHEELER: I think they've been there. I think they've been very close with the teams that they've had. They just couldn't get over the hump, and give it that extra oomph that they needed to make it to the tournament. But I think now they've got a great coaching staff. The Hurleys are there…[URI teammate] Preston Murphy… and I think they're going to get it done. They've got a fresh new look, and I know our fans are going to support them, so they should be alright.
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