Top 25 Countdown: #20 Rhode Island

Rotation

G Jarvis Garrett (Jr.)

G Jared Terrll (Jr.)

G E.C. Matthews (Jr.)

F Hassan Martin (Sr.)

F Kuran Iverson (Sr.)

Bench

G Stanford Robinson (Jr.)

G Christion Thompson (So.)

F Nikola Akele (So.)

F Andre Berry (Jr.)

F Mike Layssard (Fr.)

Over the last fifteen years, the faces of the Atlantic 10 conference have been as distinct as they have been numerous. The 2003-04 Saint Joseph’s Red Hawks finished the regular season undefeated, but they finished the season with two losses. One to eventual Elite 8 counterpart Xavier led by Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato, and the other on the precipice of the Final Four to the John Lucas led Oklahoma State Cowboys in one of the greatest regional finals I have ever witnessed. Jameer Nelson was the little man, from the little school who beat, well, almost everyone. Phil Martelli was roaming the sidelines then. And still is today. The forgotten 2005-06 George Washington Colonials who ran through the regular season unscathed in conference play and with only three losses overall. Pops Mensah-Bonsu. Mike Hall. J.R. Pinnock. The 2006-07 Xavier Musketeers did not necessarily have the otherworldly regular season performance of the aforementioned teams, however they did participate in one of the most indelible games of my lifetime. Outlasting the 8th seeded BYU Cougars in the first round, the Musketeers earned a second round matchup with the Oden and Conley led Ohio State Buckeyes. Gus was on the call as I watched the final minutes on a small TV in the concession area at a seventh grade basketball tournament. Now this Ohio State team purported itself to be the closest approximation of a forerunner to a Calipari Kentucky team of the next decade. Oden was transcendent. Conley was his floor general. Swingman Daequan Cook came with five stars floating above his head. And eventual Buckeye great David Lighty had four. They lost only once in the Big Ten, and were coached by former Xavier head coach Thad Matta. So needless to say, they weren’t supposed to lose. At least not yet. Following a Drew Lavender three pointer with seven and a half to play, Xavier was up 11 and inching ever closer to achieving the unthinkable. They were still up 7 with just under 3 to go and then it began. Jamar Butler from the parking lot. Ron Lewis and-1.  All leading up to one of Gus’s best ever calls. CONLEY… 5 TO GO… LEWIS HAS BEEN AWESOME LETS IT GO… LKAHFAOS;IFHIROTHIAODFBAIFHIORTHA’OIH’NSAJLF. Yeah Xavier lost in overtime. But their wait to avenge an early exit would be a short one. Returning almost everyone the next year, Xavier entered the tournament as a three seed and would again make it to the Elite 8 where they would lose handily to a Westbrook and Love led UCLA team. But the game that preceded that, a Sweet 16 matchup against West Virginia also entered the pantheon of indelibility. I will always remember the game as the B.J. Raymond game. Hitting one bomb from the top of the circle with just over a minute to play and then a right wing three off an out of bounds play with 30 seconds left that sent Raf into hysteria. ONIONS. HOW COULD THEY LEAVE HIM?? And yet all of this still fell short of one of the greatest games of all time. March 26, 2010. Xavier in the Sweet 16 again. This time playing the second seeded Kansas State Wildcats. If you looked at the game only through the prism of numbers, this is what you’ll see. 2 overtimes. 13 ties. 17 lead changes. 197 points scored. The game itself fell so deep into the vast abyss of absurdity and volatility that it became genuinely unbelievable. It was high leverage masterpiece where every possession felt monumental. And the shotmaking eluded capable description. This was the last game of the night with the stage all to itself. And even though K State would prevail in the second overtime, the shot to get there birthed another Gus great. “Holloway… has shown a flair for the dramatic… 11 to go… Holloway kicks it out Crawford 8… CRAWFORDS GOTTA HURRY… AAAAAHHHHHHHHHOOOOOOOO… And Len Elmore, becoming the mouthpiece for America screams but a single word… NO. Thank you Jordan Crawford. Thank you Tu Holloway. Now over the last few years, the Atlantic 10 crown has shifted and its overall membership transformed. A 2011 Sweet 16 run by the Richmond Spiders. A couple Rick Majerus led Saint Louis Billikens teams that earned my affection. Consistency at the top of the conference from the Temple Owls. The entrance of Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams. An improbable Sweet 16 run by the Explorers of La Salle. And an inspiring Elite 8 run from the Dayton Flyers. And yet I have yet to mention the team this preview is really about.

All of this is to say that the class of the 2016-17 Atlantic 10 conference is Rhode Island. Extracted from the doldrums of obscurity by now fifth year head coach Dan Hurley, the Rams look to be legitimately positioned to do something they have only recently watched other members of their conference do – play deep into the NCAA Tournament. But that could have happened even earlier. And a 2014-15 season that saw them make it to the second round of the NIT, Rhode Island looked primed to end their twenty first century tournament drought last year. That was until their best player, E.C. Matthews, sustained a knee injury in the first game of the season. The Rams went on to finish a disappointing 17-15 accompanied by a first round exit in the A10 tournament. However, not all was lost. In the absence of Matthews, the sophomore backcourt of Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell, was forced into an opportunity to shoulder much more of the load themselves. And it was Garrett especially, who emerged as one of the best lead guards in the conference. In his freshman season, Garrett flashed his abilities as a pure point and a defensive menace, but his offensive production left much to be desired. Shooting 38% from the field and 29% from three with relatively low usage was recognizably freshman, but last season, out from beneath the shadow of the ball dominant Matthews, saw not only a significant uptick in usage, but an unfathomable improvement in shot making that saw the Masked Man become the best three point shooter in the entire conference. Whether or not that is sustainable remains to be seen. While Terrell did not enjoy as monumental a transformation between his freshman and sophomore year, he did cement himself as an invaluable part of the Ram rotation, playing a much higher number of minutes while improving his percentages across the board. Adept at taking care of the ball on the offensive end and having already displayed a penchant for forcing turnovers on the other end, the Garrett/Terrell tandem has proven to be formidable on their own. And now Matthews steps back into the fold.

A legitimate first round NBA prospect and the player who will most assuredly dictate how far Rhode Island can go, E.C Matthews is one of the most skilled offensive players in the entire country. And most importantly, with him returns hope in Kingston. Mining for comparisons, guys like D’Angelo Russell and James Harden come to mind. Admittedly it helps that they are all left handed, but Matthews fits into their mold of smooth, crafty, high usage playmakers capable of carrying their team for long stretches of time. Already a skilled creator for himself and for others, Matthews does need to take care of the ball better and more consistently convert from behind the three point line, two things that might inherently improve through the maturation of Garrett and Terrell, allowing Matthews to more often move off the ball and have it in his hands less. The backcourt will be most notably supplemented by Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson, a sixth man, who although was a relative non shooter during his two years with the Hoosiers, will ostensibly be able to better utilize his athleticism to his advantage in the A10.

The frontcourt returns both Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, who although are both relatively undersized, make up for it with their respective length and athleticism. Iverson, a Memphis tranfer, and a former top 30 recruit, led the Rams in rebounding a season ago and was one of the best in the A10 at cleaning the glass. With every year his range extends more comfortably outward, and his development as a two way forward is another key to postseason success. Since he stepped foot on campus at Rhode Island, there has always been one thing Hassan Martin has been able to do, block shots. The best in the Atlantic 10 the last two seasons, and consistently in the top 20 nationally, Martin is an absolute force around the rim defensively and an efficient producer around it on the other end. His durability is certainly a concern, but the continued development of Iverson and Martin suggests that the Rams frontcourt is not far behind their backcourt, if at all.

This is the year. The Rams have not been back to the tournament in this millennium. The Rams played unbelievably slow last year, as their tempo dipped into the 33os nationally, down from spot firmly inside the top 100 the year before. However their offense improved from its 2015 incarnation, most prominently due to a marked uptick in three point percentage. If the Rams can inch back closer to their top 15 defense from a couple seasons ago, this team suddenly becomes extremely formidable, especially while being perpetuated by the continuity of its core. Yet, the Rams are not especially deep and are not especially big, and therefore, their success this season will stem from the reassertion of Matthews and the health of the starting five. But this is their turn, their chance to bear the flag of the A10 while a nation watches in awe. And they will do exactly that.

Namedrop Corner

Lamar Odom

Lamar Odom

The best player in the history of Rhode Island basketball, Lamar Odom was awesome and revolutionary. 6’10” with sublime handle of the basketball and an unbelievably gifted playmaker, Lamar will forever be underappreciated, possibly having earned a spot on the Mount Rushmore of point forwards. But he was also an intimately complex figure and a tragic one, much of the tragedy sacrificed for the televised essentiality of Kardashiana. A playground legend at a young age, his fame and mythology was compounded by his bestowed transcendence atop the glitz and glamour backdrop of Los Angeles. A captain for the Clippers at 21, it wasn’t until Khloe that his sports and Hollywood celebrity coalesced in the most dysfunctional way possible. My one time foray into the world of Khloe and Lamar was relatively brief but it was real. And even while his life was manipulated by camera documentation and framed by the high definition living room set of housewives in suburbia, his vulnerability was exceedingly evident. As was his pervasive optimism. Deferential and perpetually seeking connection, my short lived exposure to him is what ultimately made his eventual descent all the more heartbreaking. And Khloe always seemed like the most down to earth of the three. The most relatable. The most resistant to reduction. And while my years of separation leave me unable to verify whether or not this is still true, their divorce was just finalized and you wanted to see those two crazy kids make it. RIP Khloe and Lamar, best wishes to you both. Although Khloe, you already maybe got engaged to Tristan Thompson which is kind of weird, but also you do you girl.

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