America’s smallest state has produced what could be the biggest Cinderella story of a so-far tame NCAA tournament. No. 11 seed Rhode Island beat Creighton 84–72 Friday in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999.
The Rams have a potential NBA player in star junior guard E.C. Matthews, but their win was far from a one-man show. All five starters scored in double digits: Guard Jeff Dowtin led all scorers with 23 points, forward Hassan Martin locked down the middle and forced ugly misses on apparent chip shots, and forward Kuran Iverson hit three 3s.
This team has everything you could want: a nice story, a beautiful color scheme, and uniforms with horns on their crotches.
They had a chance to go dancing last year after an NIT trip in 2015, but star Matthews tore his ACL in the team’s first game of the season. The team hobbled to a 17–15 record and missed out on the NIT. This year the Rams were surprisingly ranked 23rd in the preseason and found themselves on the bubble by season’s end — then they won the A-10 tournament to seal an NCAA tournament bid instead of having to roll the dice on the selection committee.
It’s tough to be good at URI. It’s in a small state, and it’s not even the basketball powerhouse in Rhode Island: That’d be Providence. (The Rams do pretty consistently whoop Brown.) And it’s hard to break through in the A-10, a league that doesn’t have the cachet of power conferences but does have a slew of consistently quality teams like VCU, Dayton, and Davidson.
There is a world where Rhode Island is a mid-major powerhouse, a program known for its NCAA tournament success and history of turning top recruits into pro players. In the late 1990s, the Rams were coached by Jim Harrick, whose track record of NCAA shadiness is genuinely admirable. At UCLA, he had to resign after trying to cover up for a recruiting violation by claiming he had taken his wife out to dinner when he actually took a recruit. At Georgia, his players got to take a basketball strategy class coached by his son that asked students to identify how many points a 3-pointer was worth. (Every player got an A, even ones who didn’t go to class.)
At Rhode Island, he got Cuttino Mobley to the Elite Eight in 1998 and landed Lamar Odom, who wasn’t able to play at UNLV after some combination of illegal payments, a citation for soliciting a prostitute, and a fishy ACT score. After Odom got the team to the NCAA tournament in 1999, Harrick left for Georgia. The scandal there marked the end of his career and the beginning of Rhode Island’s irrelevance. His successor, Jim DeGregorio, never won more than seven games. DeGregorio’s successor, Jim Baron, was best at recruiting his own children. (Jimmy Baron and Billy Baron were superstars.)
But what they’ve gotten here is real. They took a risk on coach Dan Hurley in 2012: He’d been a head coach for only two years at Wagner, and although he’d taken the Seahawks from 13–17 to 25–5, he’d never made an NCAA tournament or won a conference championship. The best evidence he could coach was the word of his father, legendary high school coach Bob Hurley, and fathers have often exaggerated the prowess of their sons.
Whether it lasts is another question. Matthews might be best going to the NBA. Hurley’s brother, Bobby, left Buffalo for Arizona State as soon as he got the Bulls to their first NCAA tournament. Of course, siblings can make different life choices, and Dan has already turned down the opportunity to leave Rhode Island for Rutgers, but he could be convinced by a different school that offers more money and an opportunity to coach a team besides Rutgers.
A few more wins and this could be the greatest moment in Rhode Island sports history. They have to beat out Providence’s Final Four run with Rick Pitino, the existence of God Shammgod, and the Pawtucket Red Sox playing a 32-inning game back in the ’80s. It shouldn’t be that hard.