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If the Glass Slipper Fits …

Rhode Island lost 15 games last season and hasn’t made the tourney since 1999, but behind a loyal coach, a potent defense, and a newly healthy star, the Rams have emerged as this season’s sexy sleeper pick

Getty Images/Casey Moore
Getty Images/Casey Moore

Hassan Martin flicked his thumb and could hardly believe what he saw flitting past on his screen. Seconds earlier, the senior Rhode Island forward had rolled over in bed to grab his phone, which was buzzing frantically as the lock screen filled with Twitter notifications. The AP’s preseason college basketball poll had just dropped, and his mentions said that his Rams, who’d finished .500 in the Atlantic 10 the previous season, were ranked 23rd.

Wow, Martin thought as he messaged his teammate E.C. Matthews. The redshirt junior had seen the news moments before.

“It was a surprise,” Matthews said of the ranking. “I knew people were talking, but because of the past season we had with the injuries … I guess they see what we see.”

The shock that Martin and Matthews felt when the AP poll surfaced on October 31 is justified: The Rams haven’t been ranked in nearly a decade, made the NCAA tournament since 1999, added any top-100 freshmen to last season’s team, or had their star player, Matthews, on the court in about a year. Their coach has never gone dancing. They weren’t even picked by coaches and media to win their own conference this year. And yet they’ve emerged as this season’s sexy Cinderella — the gritty, veteran mid-major that appears to have the right pieces to puzzle out a tourney run.

Providence Journal sports columnist Kevin McNamara still remembers the silence, the way the entire gym hushed when Matthews fell to the floor. Matthews remembers how the panic filled him. The 6-foot-5 guard had gone down after spinning into the lane midway through the first half and would find out the next day that he’d torn his ACL. Nine minutes and 18 seconds into the first game, one of the best players in the Atlantic 10 and a projected first-round NBA draft pick’s season had ended, and so had Rhode Island’s.

“Last season was robbed from us to a degree,” said Dan Hurley, URI’s coach. “We’re not complaining about it, it’s just how we feel. We all felt that this year was going to be last year.”

Losing Matthews altered the Rams’ construction and outlook, but there was a constant hollering on the sidelines: Hurley, thanks to whom the team “overachieved” by going 9–9 in conference play last season, multiple beat writers said. His continued presence is also one of the main reasons voters made Rhode Island one of three mid-majors in the past decade to receive a preseason Top 25 spot after losing 15 or more games the campaign prior.

Hurley didn’t inherit a winner. When he arrived at Rhode Island in 2012, the roster had been gutted by transfers and injuries. The team had finished the previous season 7–24 thanks in part to one of college basketball’s worst defenses, which allowed an opponents’ effective field goal percentage of 53.6, ranking 321st out of 345 teams nationally. But Hurley was ready, because it wasn’t the worst mess he’d seen. Wagner, Hurley’s previous stop, had gone 5–26 the season before he took over, but he engineered 13–17 and 25–6 campaigns in his two seasons before departing for the Rams. Veteran CBS writer Gary Parrish, who put the Rams 18th in his preseason power rankings, said that when Hurley’s peers finish coaching against him, they’re almost always impressed.

Under the fixer, the Rams defense steadily improved. By Hurley’s third season, Rhode Island had made the NIT behind the 13th-most-efficient defense in the nation, per KenPom.com, and limited opposing shooters to a mark of 27.3 percent from beyond the arc, second-best nationally.

The key was Hurley’s man-to-man, half-court pressure, which suffocated offenses, forced giveaways, and started the fast break to provide more scoring opportunities for the Rams, who needed the extra looks because they were inconsistent from the field and the free throw line. In 2014–15, with Matthews and Martin healthy all season, URI created turnovers on 21.8 percent of their opponents’ possessions, one of the nation’s best rates.

“He likes defense, I think, because he can control it,” McNamara said. “Because it’s about effort. When you see Hurley work a game, he’s the type who never sits down, who’s on the officials, just a lot of intensity.”

Hurley doesn’t just stand; he frenetically ping-pongs up and down the sideline. The human Newton’s cradle has a wry, desperado demeanor, gives Boeheim-esque press conferences, and has no qualms about going at other coaches. Sometimes he appears miscast in the A-10; he’d be a natural supporting character hustling and scuffling in the ’80s Big East.

The New Jersey native’s success led Rutgers to offer him its head-coaching job in March. Hurley had been a Scarlet Knights assistant for four years and is part of a legendary Jersey basketball family that includes his Hall of Fame father, Bob, and brother Bobby, once a Duke player and now the coach at Arizona State. In his first year at Rhode Island, Providence Journal sportswriter Bill Koch saw Hurley light into one of his players, a fellow Jersey boy, because he was badly representing the Garden State by not hustling.

For 48 hours, Hurley reportedly “agonized” over whether to take the gig. By returning to Jersey, he could’ve used every prodigal(content removed) figure’s favorite redemption song. But Hurley said he ultimately turned down the reported annual salary of upwards of $1.5 million and Rutgers’ guarantees to upgrade its facilities for two reasons:

  1. A third full-scale rebuild in seven years sounded exhausting (because Rutgers)
  2. He knew that injuries had prevented his 2015–16 Rams team from reaching its true potential

Had he moved to New Brunswick, Hurley’s URI career would have been remembered for 62 wins, 64 losses, and many more what-ifs. That wasn’t enough. For all of his team’s success, the Rams had fallen one defensive stop shy in 2014–15 from earning the school’s first regular-season A-10 title and had managed to beat only one top-40 KenPom team — no. 19 St. Louis in overtime in 2013 — in his four seasons. Injuries and a lack of talent contributed to the lack of marquee wins in the past. With Martin and Matthews returning and four of the conference’s 11 former four-star recruits on his squad, Hurley believed that this year’s team could do what a knee ligament had prevented last year’s from accomplishing.

“Every preseason ranking is presumptuous,” said Koch, “but [Rhode Island] definitely has something to prove on the floor, and that does include Dan Hurley.”

Three-hundred-seventeen days, more one-legged squats than he can remember, and many aquatic workouts later, Matthews stepped back onto a basketball court. He had a skittish first day on September 25, coaches coaxing him into trusting the body that had already betrayed him once. He transitioned slowly back to his physical game of driving to the rim, and now estimates that he’s back to 85 percent. He’ll look the same as he always has from head to his favored old-school T-Macs, just with a black brace on his right knee.

In the weeks since that first day, he’s shown flashes of OG EC, who averaged nearly 17 points, five rebounds, and two assists per game in his last full season. He shot 4-for-6 with 12 points in the first half of URI’s secret scrimmage against Harvard, against Harvard, according to Hurley, who said said that NBA scouts have generally left practices impressed.

But it’s not as if Matthews can go dancing without help. His team returns three double-digit scorers and the reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year in Martin, and Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson is now eligible. Three or four URI players, Parrish said, could be in the rotation for any top-20 team in the country. The additional return of senior forward Kuran Iverson and junior guards Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell, role players who matured with added minutes in Matthews’s absence last season, gives Hurley the depth to play fast and pressure often this year.

“I’m not saying we won’t have growing pains,” Matthews said, “but I think we’ll be better suited to finish games because we got closers now, people we can trust.”

A-10 coaches and media are more skeptical than their national counterparts, tabbing Dayton over Rhode Island to win the conference. The Flyers return four starters from the team that earned a no. 7 seed in last season’s NCAA tournament, and VCU lurks just behind Rhody with two players on the preseason All-Defensive team.

But Rhode Island also has a member of that team in Martin, who won DPOY last season despite missing the final two weeks with right knee tendinitis. Slightly undersized at 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, the lefty has been working on his jump shot so the Rams can spread the floor more often. This summer, his days started with 500 jump shots, particularly from 17 feet and beyond the 3-point arc. Martin worked to strengthen his right hand, his passing, and his ability to spy the oncoming weakside defensive help on the double-teams that came often last season, forcing the big man into nearly two turnovers per game.

“At the same time, I don’t want to get away from my strengths: hook shots and offensive rebounds,” Martin said. “But I work on those things because we like to play fast.”

Martin isn’t the only Ram with that veteran savvy. Of Hurley’s 13 players, only four are freshmen, and the coach has adapted to his older roster by shortening long practices by 30 minutes to two hours and 15 minutes. The team worked to manage the pressure of some of the hype it was receiving over the summer by hiring Justin Su’a, a mental strength coach for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Browns. He visits campus once a month and often texts the players inspirational messages and podcasts. Hurley, like Su’a, looks to boost his players, and once sent Matthews a Vertical podcast with Kyle Lowry, who tore his ACL before ever stepping foot on the court at Villanova. He now stars for the NBA’s Raptors.

Hurley sent it because he knew Matthews had been scouring the internet, reading about players who’d suffered trying injuries. Matthews studied Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, and Paul George in search of the same reassurance. Because underneath the diligent rehab and confident veneer, Matthews worried.

“We’re all human at the end of the day,” Matthews said, “we all have fear of not coming back the same.”

The Rhode Island hype originated in early April, when college basketball experts identified what the return of Matthews alongside his more experienced teammates and under the doubled-down Hurley could mean. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi awarded the Rams a no. 10 seed in an early 2016–17 bracket, CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein predicted a no. 21 ranking come fall, and Bleacher Report pegged URI as a no. 6 seed in the tournament.

“Some of it can become groupthink, no doubt about it,” Parrish said. “I feel like we’re a part of that on some level. People like to say polls don’t mean anything or preseason rankings don’t mean anything, but … they’re decent indicators of what’s to come.”

Still, McNamara said, it’s a long jump from 17 wins to making the NCAAs, especially because Rhode Island will have to prove itself good enough for an at-large bid if it fails to secure an automatic berth by winning its conference tournament. The legitimacy of the URI expectations will be tested early; its fourth game is November 19 against American Athletic Conference–favorite Cincinnati on a neutral court in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. If the Rams win, Duke will likely be waiting in the championship game. Five of the seven following games are against squads picked near the top of their respective conferences, meaning we will know how good Rhode Island really is by Christmas.

All we’re sure of now is what Martin woke up to discover one October morning: College basketball analysts have high hopes for a team that hasn’t yet proved it deserves them. In the meantime, a respected coach prepares his star guard and well-regarded supporting cast in the same South Kingstown gym that Martin walked to that afternoon, rolling over the Top 25 ranking in his mind. After practice, his old roommate Matthews came over. They sat talking for well over an hour.

“People are giving us recognition now,” Martin said.

“We gotta prove we deserve it,” Matthews responded.

“We gotta get the freshmen on board fast.”

“We’ll take ’em as far as we can go.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a gym being in South Kingsport; the gym is in South Kingstown.