Rhode Island & the Atlantic 10 Searching For Answers

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 12th, 2016

The phrase mid-major is thrown around a lot by those of us who watch this sport. At some point we got lazy and decided to classify every school outside of the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC as mid-major programs. While leagues like Conference USA and the Mountain West would not have fit the mid-major description in the early-to-mid 2000s, their basketball reputations have taken a dive in recent years as schools have relocated. Meanwhile, the Atlantic 10 has produced 52 NCAA Tournament appearances since 2000, the most of any conference outside the Power Six. As the preseason pick to finish second in the league, Rhode Island, much like the league it plays in, finds itself in an uncomfortable mid-December position.

Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews scored 31 points in Saturday's loss to Houston, one point shy of tying a career high. (Photo courtesy of GoRhody.com)

Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews scored 31 points in Saturday’s loss to Houston, one point shy of tying a career high. (GoRhody.com)

Although projecting the fortunes of this program is one of the tougher queries in college basketball, we have written in this space that 2016-17 could finally be the Year of the Rams. Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s recent basketball history is riddled with disappointment. Despite accumulating six 20-win seasons since the 1998-99 season — including four in a row from 2008-11 — the Rams have not appeared in the NCAA Tournament over that span. A healthy combination of returnees E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin, in addition to improving depth and a jam-packed non-conference schedule, led many pundits to believe in the preseason that Rhode Island’s breakthrough was imminent.

Ten games into the season, familiar trends are emerging. While Matthews dropped 31 points in the Rams’ weekend loss at Houston, Rhode Island was without the services of leading scorer and rebounder Martin for the second straight outing. With no guarantees waiting in the Atlantic 10 season, this was a game Dan Hurley‘s team needed to win. A back-and-forth affair ultimately came down to Rhode Island’s inability to get stops against a Cougars team that scored 1.22 points per possession and had two players (Rob Gray and Chicken Knowles) go for 25 points or more. Rhode Island’s strength of schedule currently rates 55th in college basketball — with losses against Duke, Valparaiso and Providence accompanying Houston — but its very early victory over a Cincinnati team likely to win the AAC will look very attractive as a resume-enhancer by the time the Selection Committee puts the bracket together.

Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley is searching for his first NCAA Tournament in his fifth season in Kingston. (USA Today Sports)

Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley is searching for his first NCAA Tournament berth in his fifth season in Kingston. (Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports)

This is where the rest of the Atlantic 10 comes in. What has typically been a strong league at the top of the standings has disappointed so far this season. Despite a home loss to St. Mary’s and a neutral defeat to Nebraska, conference favorite Dayton has appeared the most competent despite its own injury problems. Otherwise, there hasn’t been a lot to get excited about. The only A-10 victory against a team from last week’s AP Top 25 is Rhode Island’s victory over Cincinnati. Factor in a slow start at VCU that includes a home loss to one of the worst ACC rosters in recent memory, a supposedly improved Richmond club with an awful RPI rating of #189, and a host of other near-misses against good non-conference competition. Suddenly the Atlantic 10 looks like a mediocre league that won’t add much cachet to any of its members’ postseason resumes. Hurley’s group may very well get to 20 wins again but it needs its conference mates to step up in order to give the Rams a reasonable chance of ending their long NCAA Tournament drought. It also requires Rhode Island to play nearly flawless basketball in January and February in order to state their case as a team that took a little time to get going. If not, this might turn out to be another unfulfilled 20-win season in the annals of Rhode Island basketball history.

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