KINGSTON - RI. As we've seen before under the guidance of Jim Baron, the Runnin' Rams are doing just that, running, out of the gate.
An unassuming, but deadly squad led by seniors Keith Cothran and Lamonte Ulmer, and junior guard Delroy James are sitting at 8-1, with an eye-opening, steam-rolling victory over ACC rival Boston College, in Boston last Sunday. We have certainly seen this type of breakout before, during URI's 60 plus wins in the last 3 years.
The problem with this for Rhody fans, is the late season melt-downs that had the sure-fire NCAA Tournament bound Rams come one game short.
In 2010, however, this Cinderella might be asked dance come March.
In '06-'07 a young Rhody team shocked everybody with an upset of Xavier in the Atlantic 10 semi-finals. During the final game in Atlantic City, the Rams hung with George Washington in an ultimately losing battle that had kept them from the NCAA tournament for the 7th straight season.
In '07-'08 a Will Daniels-led Rhody squad caught fire and came out 15-2, their only losses on away floors to Boston College and a #22 Dayton squad, with the Rams being ranked as high as #21 in the country.
What seemed to be a slower tempo team then went 6-8 the rest of the way during conference play, including 5 straight losses, culminating with a disheartening 74-73 loss to Creighton in the first round of the NIT.
A game that had Rhody up 17 points well into the second half, but ended with a Cavel Witter 3-pointer with 3.2 left on the clock to seal it for the Blue Jays.
'08-'09 had more of the same in store for the Rams, who hit their stride in the stretch run during conference play and won 7 straight, including a wild, overtime, buzzer-beating performance over Dayton, who had just exited the top 25 that week.
While this team was great, led by long-range sniper Jimmy Baron and big-man Kahiem Seawright, they lacked the marquee wins to add to their 22 win resume.
They had opportunities, for sure - a white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat, 3-point loss at #5 Duke, a loss against #22 Villanova that had the Rams playing their 4th game in 7 days, a back-and-forth loss against Big 12 opponent Oklahoma State, a drag-out 2 point drop at home against #16 Xavier and the very hard to swallow 1 point loss to in-state rival Providence College.
A power conference, quality win, might have been enough for the Rams, who had a 12-2 home record, to overcome the loss to a lesser UMASS team in the final regular-season game at the Ryan Center.
The A-10 tournament had the boys from Kingston sitting as the #2 seed, but they dropped a 78-74 decision to a Duquesne team that they had beaten only a week before. NIT play had more of the same, with a win at Niagara but a loss to a Penn State team that they had fully dominated back in November.
The tournament game ended with the Rams unable to hit a field-goal in the last 7 minutes of regulation.
This year, however, looks to be different. While being picked to finish in the lower half of the A-10 standings and miss post-season play, the players on this team aren't strangers to shattering expectations.
The Rams that finished at #2 in the A-10 last year, were also picked to finish 8th and miss the post-season.
What separates this team from the past, and from their opponents? Two things. Depth and athleticism.
While these have become staples of the run-and-gun style of Jim Baron's Runnin' Rams, they have really come to fruition this season.
While depth has been what has kept this team's legs fresh this year, the quality of players coming off the bench this season are troubling for any defense to say the least.
This "backup" squad is unrelenting and doesn't give teams much breathing room when Rhody's starters are off the court.
Athletically, to say this team is gifted is an understatement. Combine that with the fitness of this team and you begin to understand why this team is called the Runnin' Rams.
While this may not be the most skilled basketball team in the NCAA, this is certainly one of the fastest and in-shape squads in D-1. When they control the tempo and play what seems to be a frantic and hectic pace for other teams, like they did at Boston College, the conditioning shows.
This allows them to hang with any team in the nation. Because of the depth, no one on the Rams roster is averaging over 30 minutes a game, key not only in keeping players healthy all season, but in having players who can continue to push the tempo on the floor, no matter who they are, for a full 40 minutes.
While there were doubts about this teams ability to run an effective half-court offense when the pace of the game has slowed, these doubts are starting to fade.
Every player has made strides at their positions and can make plays at any point in the game. While Cothran is the out-right scoring leader, averaging over 17 a game, it seems that someone different steps up every night.
In an A-10 with spectacular guard play, the team who's frontcourt and center can pick up slack when the guards drop it will be the one finishing on top.
Why this team is different than last year? The half court offense.
Where this team has begun to slide in the past years, has certainly been in conference play. Teams that are familiar with Rhody's hellacious tempo work on ways to slow it down and in the past, the half-court offense was ineffective.
The sets, essentially, depended on Jimmy Baron coming off of a screen to make a shot, even if the play wasn't designed for it. When the play broke down, Jimmy was there, and to his credit, made the most of it.
Without a lock-down deep threat on the floor this year, many were nervous about how the Rams would be able to play at a slower pace.
What it looks like now though, is a team that has a number a threats from deep and mid-range. While you shouldn't expect to see performances like the 9 of 15 3 point shooting clinic the boys in Keaney Blue put on at Boston College, expect to see a number of players that can hit shots and make plays from anywhere on the floor.
While last year defenses knew that Baron was the man who would be taking the shot in a clutch situation, defenders will not know who the ball is going to and who is going to make a play on any given night. The balance on this team is scary for any opponent.
What the year will come down to for the Rams as a team is how well they can use the opportunities they will be given. They will have only a few games to open eyes with marquee victories and need to capitalize on them.
A loss by 2 at VCU is not going hurt their NCAA Tournament bid hopes, as long as they can secure a big road and a few big home wins.
They have stepped up to the occasion so far, beating both power conference teams they have faced, one of them away, and need to gain one more big win before they see Temple in mid-January.
The Oklahoma State game at Mohegan Sun on January 2nd, is going to be the true measuring stick for this team.
Playing a very good team from a very good Big 12 will be one of the victories they will need on their resume come March. The difference between a bubble team with 23 wins and a team admitted with 22 is how many of those wins are of the high quality nature.
Besides VCU, PC, BC and Oklahoma State, their out-of-conference play schedule has been weak and will continue to be so until they reach A-10 play.
The advantage for the Rams is the strength of the A-10 Conference.
Ranked 6th in the Sagarin Index, the A-10 is the strongest non-BCS league by far, and ranked better than the PAC-10. As long as these squads continue to play this well, Rhody could have the potential to play 5 games against ranked opponents (Temple twice, Dayton, Xavier, Richmond).
A win or two or three against a ranked team in conference and the Rams should be able to overcome the out-of-conference strength of schedule woes and climb in the RPI and the polls.
What makes the A-10 so exciting to watch is also it's biggest vice when it comes time for NCAA Tournament bids. The teams play with each other, no matter how good or bad they are, and beat each other up.
If Temple, Dayton, Xavier, Charlotte, Richmond and URI can stay away from bad losses and separate themselves from the pack, the A-10 could essentially be a 5 bid league.
While it's a stretch to say the least, realistically, you are looking at an A-10 that will send 3, maybe 4 teams to the big dance, so long as the winning ways continue. Vital for the Rams is going to be seizing these opportunities and getting the quality wins.
URI will finish with between 23-25 wins in the regular season. Lofty I know, but the reality is, that this team plays with whoever their opponent is, good or bad.
They can certainly win the rest of their games until A-10 play starts, and go 12-4, or better, in conference. Their keys will be to:
1) Protect the fort - win at home at the Ryan Center, something they've been quite good at in recent memory.
2) Win all the games they should, lose none of the ones they shouldn't - as long as the losses are not to opponents outside of the top 100 they'll be alright.
3) Win big games - The NCAA Tournament doesn't hand out bids to decent teams, they give them to the good ones. You become a good team by beating better ones. The lack of big games this season magnifies this for the Rams. Luckily they'll also have opportunities to bolster their resume with a stacked A-10 in the conference tournament.
As a team widely overlooked year in and year out, it is understandable why the "experts" think that post-season play isn't likely.
The Rams still haven't been back to the big time since Lamar Odom's miracle shot against Temple in '99.
But this year looks different. This year, they won't need a miracle shot. They won't need one guy to do all the heavy lifting and they won't fall apart at the end.
This team is filled with players who have been on top and watched it slide away before and do not want that feeling again.
They will not get a big head no matter what number comes in front of their name or whether one comes at all.
Above all else they are a team, in every sense of the word. They are putting their heads down and playing.
Flat out playing.
They are killing themselves on and off the court to make sure that a meltdown won't happen again. Knock on some wood and mark these words:
Cinderella is wearing a Keaney Blue dress to the ball this year.
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