Preseason attention for a basketball team is a matter of taste – is it better to fly under the radar and sneak up on opponents, or have obvious strength on the roster that makes it fun for people to project all the good things that might happen?
For the Rhode Island men’s squad, the 2015-16 season will launch under a much brighter spotlight than the Rams are used to feeling. It’s the fruit that comes with a solid effort last year, when the program reached the second round of the NIT and finished 23-10 overall, while starting two freshmen and two sophomores for the brunt of the season.
A couple of tweaks to the roster, and the sight of those four starters coming back, has many observers predicting a serious breakout moment for the Rams – likely enough to get the team in the NCAA Tournament after a 16-year drought. Winning the Atlantic 10 tournament would do the trick (Dayton and Davidson will be just as hungry and capable for that honor), but in the end, the Rams are tasked with meeting their own potential and living with the results.
That’s the case for every team, of course, but more people are watching to see how Rhode Island measures up to the challenge.
“We are aware of all the hype. It certainly feels better than having low expectations,” said head coach Dan Hurley, whose defense-first emphasis helped the team top 20 victories for the first time in five seasons. “Our focus is on our preparation, taking it practice to practice and game to game. We still have a lot of work to do.”
“It’s good to hear, we know the program hasn’t had the attention in a while. To be a part of the reason for the buzz feels good; we’re getting recognized,” said junior Hassan Martin, who blocked more than 100 shots last season, an impressive number for a player who stands 6-foot-7. “But we can’t let that get to our heads. You have to look through the hype and still stay focused. It’s our job to make the hype and the buzz become a reality.”
Martin anchored a system that led the nation in 3-point shooting defense last year; he’s been a reliable backstop who allows perimeter defenders the latitude to play aggressively. His timing and awareness in crossing the lane and helping on defense borders on amazing, making him a candidate for the league’s defensive player of the year honor.
The other Ram getting heavy attention this fall is E.C. Matthews, a junior guard who averaged just shy of 17 points per game last year. Like Martin, Matthews came to campus and was prepared to produce right away, and was able to create havoc last year even as he fought off hand and foot injuries.
“When I started, I just knew how to play and didn’t feel I had weaknesses. I could score and that’s it,” Matthews said. “I’ve worked harder on defense, and that’s something you have to buy into – if you don’t play defense, coach Hurley won’t put you out there, anyway.
“There’s more you have to do, and more you are supposed to do. Last year, there were times I wasn’t 100 percent, and that can mean a lot. Mentally, you’re thinking about it a lot, and I knew I wasn’t right. Now, after the surgery on my finger, I feel completely different.”
Sophomores Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett round out the returning starter group and will be leaned upon heavily, but their contributions will likely flow from effective work out of the two juniors.
They're both hard workers, great listeners, and most of all good people,” Hurley said of Matthews and Martin. “We had a vision for their college careers, the opportunities that would be afforded them in the future, and a clear plan on what they needed to do to achieve their goals.”
If the Rams had an obvious hole in their game last year, it was their own 3-point shooting – none of the high-volume shooters from long range hit 33 percent of their attempts, which is a key benchmark for that shot. Graduate transfer Four McGlynn has been a reliable shooter his whole career, and Hurley is counting on broad improvement for the team’s outside eye.
“I'm confident that we are overall a better shooting team than last year, at every position,” Hurley added. “But it's more than that. A lot goes into building a team.”
“All of us – we’re not bad shooters,” Matthews said. “It’s been a mental thing, and a lot of us have been working hard on our outside game. We should be better there, and we feel confident shooting that shot.”
So all the nuts and bolts required for a special year appear to be in the Rhode Island tool box. Can the machine work efficiently enough to guide the team into the NCAA Tourney for the first time since the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears topped the album charts? The Rams will try to tune out the distractions and focus on the work.
“I don’t feel anything (about the predictions). It’s just what somebody thinks,” Matthews said. “We still have games to win. I feel honored for the respect, but there’s a lot of work to do.”
“We have to finish games against the good teams, and keep the right mindset,” Martin added. “Last year, we were young, and it affected us a bit. Now, we’re a more veteran team. We have to keep that defensive mindset, and play a full 40 minutes, with no plays off.”