March 22, 1998. Precisely 59.3 seconds separated the University of Rhode Island Rams Men's Basketball Team from the history books. Leading the Stanford Cardinal 71-65 at St. Louis' Kiel Center, the Rams needed just one final efficient minute to land a berth at the Final Four in San Antonio. The Rams used each of those 59.3 seconds to self -destruct.
The Jim Harrick-led 1997-98 URI Rams amassed a 25-9 record -- good for second place in the Atlantic 10. They were selected as an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, the eight seed in the Midwest. After blowing out #9 Murray State, they bested Paul Pierce and the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks 80-75 in Oklahoma City. Rhode Island moved on to St. Louis, knocking off #13 Valparaiso en route to their fortuitous meeting with third-seeded Stanford.
After Stanford closed the gap to a single point, Senior guard Cuttino Mobley turned the ball over in their own zone, leading to a dunk and a foul for Stanford forward Mark Madsen. With the next possession, and trailing by a pair, the Rams turned the ball over once more, and leading to more free throws for the Cardinal.
Trailing 77-74, and with just five seconds remaining, the Rams were afforded a golden opportunity via Senior guard Tyson Wheeler. Fouled while attempting a three-pointer, Wheeler was awarded three free throws, and the opportunity to tie the game. He missed all three.
He choked. The Rams lost.
The Lamar Odom "Era"
Riding high off their previous year's run, the Jim Harrick's Runnin' Rams were predicted to win the Atlantic 10 in 1998-99, and earn a another berth in the Tournament come March. They did.
With the help of a 6'10" Freshman transfer from UNLV by the name of Lamar Odom, Rhode Island looked impressive in early games, earning wins against Vanderbilt, TCU, and Utah.
The following season, the Rams won just five games. The next season: seven. Jerry Degregorio was not long for the Ocean State. He finished with a two-season record of 12-48.
In 2001, Rhode Island brought in new coach with a proven history of leading mid-major teams from obscurity to prominence. Jim Baron walked onto URI's Kingston campus with a career record of 206-202, a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances, three NIT berths, and an Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year honor.
The Jim Baron era lasted eleven seasons in Kingston, only three of which ended with a losing record. In fact, Baron led the Rams to five -- including four consecutive -- 20+ win seasons. His run and gun style offense allowed Rhode Island to blow past slower, weaker teams. But in close games against tough competition, Baron's system often failed.. Despite multiple winning seasons, and being among the top scoring teams in the nation, The Rams failed to earn a single tournament appearance under Baron.
The Rams, at this point, had not defeated a ranked opponent since December 21, 1998 -- when they defeated the #25 ranked Utah Utes at the Great Eight Classic,
So why believe now?
The cliche is old, and well, a cliche -- but it's true. Defense wins championships. As does offensive efficiency. Rams have both.
With 14 games under their belt (11 wins), the Rams are allowing jus 57.4 points per game, good for 22nd in the Division I. In fact, they've allowed opponents to cross the 70 point threshold just once -- a loss to #11 Kansas. On the other side of the court, they average 70.7 points per game, which is not all that notable, but what is impressive is their field goal efficiency. The Rams convert 47 percent of all field goal attempts, good for 40th in Division I.
Just three games into conference play, Rhode Island has already accomplished a feat that had not occurred since the Lamar Odom era. They defeated a ranked opponent. Though it took an extra frame, the Rams bested #21 Nebraska at the Ryan Center on November 22.
Other notable wins for Rhode Island include Southern Mississippi, St. Louis, and Santa Clara. More impressively, their only losses came to #11 Kansas, Georgia Tech, and Providence College- -- by a total of 27 points.
In their most recent game, at Duquesne in Pittsburgh, URI overcame a 13 point second half deficit to beat the Dukes 61-60. URI has won six straight, and is now 3-0 in the Atlantic 10 for the first time since 1997.
Long term prognosis
E.C. Matthews is the real deal. He can score -- in bunches. His 17.4 points per game leads the Rams, and he has proven to be the guy who wants -- and deserves -- the ball with the game on the line. But it is the surprisingly efficient play of Sophomore forward Hassan Martin that has really made the difference for the Rams. He is averaging 11.7 points per game, 6.9 rebounds, and has converted an unbelievable 67 percent of all field goal attempts -- good for 5th best overall in Division I.
The young players making key contributions is impressive. Highly-touted Freshmen Travis Garrett and Jared Terrell have earned their more than 45 minutes of combined playing time in the back court rotation. The aforementioned Sophomores -- Matthews and Martin -- have proven to be team leaders, and each have two more seasons of eligibility.
The players that Hurley has recruited have stepped up in a big way. They play defense, take smart shots, and manage their possessions efficiently, The Rams are poised to take one of the top spots in the A-10, and with continued consistent play, could earn themselves an at-large bid come March.
And, it's not unfair to assume that the Rams current success is likely to carry over into years future. Rhode Island loses just 3 seinors this season, forward Gilvydas Biruta, and guards TJ Buchanan, and Rory Temkin.
So, as my headline indicates. it is time to buy in to the Runnin' Rams. Look forward to a promising March.
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