E.C. Matthews leads talented and rising Rhode Island team that serves as Fordham's latest challenge in Atlantic 10. (Photo courtesy of the Providence Journal)
Fordham's second Atlantic 10 game of the season is, much like their opener against VCU, one where Tom Pecora's team will face a defense-oriented, relentless group whose physicality trumps that of the Rams both on paper and on the court.
It is also the second straight game in which Fordham faces a team with the same nickname. However, as much of a superlative as that fact may be, what does not require hyperbole is the 9-3 start that Rhode Island has muscled its way to as the Ocean State's Rams return to the Ryan Center after capturing their latest statement victory, a 65-53 win in a hostile road environment against Saint Louis, whose Rick Majerus-influenced defensive schemes have confounded their A-10 opposition for several years, both under the watchful eye of their late former coach and current program caretaker Jim Crews.
Back to Rhode Island, if we may. The pace they have set in what is now year three of the Dan Hurley regime has allowed fans in Kingston to start thinking big once again, not that they had not to begin with. When Hurley arrived from Wagner College in 2012, it was never a question of "if" the son of Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley and younger brother of Duke legend and current Buffalo coach Bobby would restore the winning ways of the Keaney blue and white, but rather one of "when," or "how soon" such a resurgence would happen. From our in-depth coverage of Hurley when he was making a name for himself in this area, we are not surprised by his victories over Nebraska and Detroit, nor by his battles against Kansas and Providence, and as intense and fierce of a presence as he himself may be, he instills an even stronger and wilder competitive fire in his players, the mark of a true success in the coaching ranks.
Sophomores E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin, both of whom were A-10 All-Rookie selections last season, have picked up where they left off, averaging nearly 29 points and 11 rebounds combined to offset the scoring that was vacated by the graduation of Xavier Munford. A pair of freshmen in Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett have stepped into the roles of Matthews and Martin to positive results as well, giving Hurley two more options to pair with Matthews, Martin and Gilvydas Biruta, who has opened his final season by shooting a blistering 61 percent from the field for a team that will be among the stingiest Fordham has seen on the defensive end, yielding only 57 points per game, a statistic good enough to place Rhode Island among the Top 20 in the nation in points allowed per game. Furthermore, the Rams are only surrendering a scant 0.86 points per possession to their opponents, which correlates to an offensive efficiency of 86 for whomever has the unenviable task of facing Hurley's young charges.
To get further acquainted with Rhode Island, we welcome Dave Ascoli of Rhody Rampage to the site. Dave was one of the panelists in our preseason A-10 roundtable, and now that Rhode Island has some games under their belt, he is able to impart some more information upon us as two herds of Rams collide with one another for the second time this week:
Jaden Daly: Has Rhode Island's start been on a par with their expectations, or have the Rams exceeded/fell short of what was envisioned for them?
Dave Ascoli: I would say that from a results standpoint, the Rams have started on par with expectations. Most fans and pundits had Rhody at 9-3 at this point. This was the year they were expected to take a jump forward, and they've delivered. But from an "eye test" standpoint in terms of their play on the court, I think URI has exceeded expectations. The Rams are running an incredibly efficient offense while playing defense that ranks, in some metrics, amongst the best in the country. And they seem to be getting better and better as the season rolls on. With that, I think you're seeing the expectations increase from what they were in October.
JD: Between E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin, Dan Hurley has two all-conference players for years to come, but who else will be a focal point that some Fordham fans may not already know about?
DA: There are two players, Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett, and I lump them together for several reasons. First, they're both freshmen, with Terrell being arguably the highest-profile recruit that Dan Hurley has landed since he's been here. Secondly, they both play terrific defense, which could certainly be a problem for Fordham. They rank 1st and 3rd on the team in steals, respectively, and based on Fordham's struggles against HAVOC, Terrell and Garrett could feast tomorrow night. And finally, the offense for both players is lacking a little bit right now, which is likely why they're flying under the radar. But both guys find a way to contribute without scoring, which is always welcome on a Dan Hurley team.
JD: Between this game and their next one on the road at Duquesne, how important is it for Rhode Island to hold serve going into difficult matchups against VCU and UMass?
DA: I would say it's pretty important, if only to maintain both momentum and fan interest heading into the home game versus VCU. It's no secret that the Rams need a big win to boost their resume for a potential at-large bid, and VCU is one of the few opportunities left. The last thing URI needs is to stumble into that one.
JD: Is there enough of a value to place on the "Hurley effect" and how much Dan has turned the program around from the end of the Jim Baron era? Also, what have been the biggest differences in Rhode Island basketball since he arrived in 2012?
DA: I MIGHT not be the best person to ask, only because my love for Dan Hurley borders on "irrational apologist". But yes, it's evident that the program has turned around big time since Baron left, and the differences are in both the tangibles and the intangibles. In short, there's been improvement in pretty much every area of the program, top to bottom. The recruiting, the in-game coaching, the culture... heck, you can see that Hurley's influence has spread to areas like PR and the marketing department. The differences are aplenty, and they're all awesome.
JD: Conversely, what do you feel Fordham needs to do to justify bringing Tom Pecora back next season?
DA: This one is a little harder, because I truly thought Pecora was a good hire back in 2010. He was, of course, going to need time to turn the program around, but I thought he was going to do it. Fast forward five years and... not so much. It raises the question: is it possible for the Bronx Rams to succeed? Is this more than a coaching issue? I don't know the answer.
JD: Overall, where do you see the Rams finishing Atlantic 10 play, and will they be in the postseason conversation?
DA: The A-10 this year basically consists of a top five teams... then everyone else. The five are, in no particular order, VCU, Dayton, GW, Davidson, and Rhode Island. I think URI's will be able to beat out at least one of those teams and finish in the top four in the league. As for the postseason: if Rhody beats one (or more) of those four teams AND makes noise in Brooklyn, I think they're an NCAA team. If they only do one of those two things, I think they're on the bubble, leaning towards NIT. And if they do neither... it's probably the NIT or one of the lower-profile postseason tourneys.
JD: Finally, a two-part question here: What are the keys to victory for Rhode Island, and for those who haven't seen this team yet, what can they expect?
DA: The keys for URI always start with defense. If they can lock teams down - especially on the perimeter - and force some turnovers, they're going to knock off most teams in this league. Rhody has been making a living in the paint all year, so that's a key as well. I know I keep harping on the 'D', but fans should expect a swarming man-to-man attack that will extend into full-court pressure at times. And if it's your first time seeing Rhode Island this year, I expect you to wonder why you haven't been hearing Hassan Martin's name more often.