Atlantic 10 champions last season, Rhode Island has shown no hangover symptoms en route to 8-0 conference start and national ranking as Dan Hurley continues to capture lightning in a bottle. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
It is a story as common and time-tested as the NCAA Tournament itself.
A mid-major gets hot in January and February, powers through their conference tournament, then feeds off the momentum to score a March upset. But sometimes, the plucky Cinderella turns into a legitimate powerhouse, rolling through almost everyone in its path to garner not only nationwide respectability, but the label of a household program.
Gonzaga. Butler. Wichita State. All three are examples of the latter trend, and Rhode Island; now 8-0 in the Atlantic 10 after Wednesday's 78-58 thrashing of Fordham, appears to be the next in line to join the club.
"These guys have created a great culture," head coach Dan Hurley remarked as the Rams won their 11th-straight contest, dispatching their latest challenger in a season that has seen victories over Seton Hall and Providence in the non-conference portion of the schedule act as valuable table-setters and key victories as the A-10 is shaping up to perhaps be a one-bid league come Selection Sunday. "We've got a real deep team. We've got eight or nine or ten guys that can hurt you. They can get double-figure points, and we probably have six, seven, eight guys that can get 18-20."
The commitment to excellence starts with Hurley, the prince of New Jersey basketball royalty and son of the legendary St. Anthony head coach Bob Hurley, whose intensity and defensive emphasis comes straight out of his father's playbook, a basketball gospel of sorts; and trickles down from a coaching staff that includes a proven winner in assistant coach Tom Moore to a group of seniors the likes of E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell, and even further down to younger players such as defensive stalwart Jeff Dowtin, Jr.; only a sophomore, and fellow second-year teammate Cyril Langevine, a former standout at The Patrick School. The buy-in is consistent and ubiquitous, and the payoff has reaped great dividends with still another seven weeks before the 68-team NCAA Tournament field is set.
"I think that just comes from maturity, experience," said guard Stanford Robinson. "Growing up in the league, seeing the ups and downs we've been through, we as a senior group understand what it takes to have a chance to go deep in the tournament. I think it's just our mindset, and with what the coaches instill in us every day, we try to find a couple of things that will keep the fire going, just playing with anger. We don't want to let up."
A No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament who defeated Creighton in their opening-round matchup before narrowly missing a trip to the Midwest Regional semifinals at the hands of Oregon, the Rams have steamrolled through the A-10, all the while vindicating Robinson's aforementioned mantra with a transition defense that stokes the competitive nature of Rhode Island basketball, evidenced by 35 points off 23 Fordham turnovers to punctuate a performance that proves that the longtime New England bastion is not just a trendy pick to reach the second weekend in March for the first time since 1999.
"They're really good," Fordham head coach Jeff Neubauer deadpanned. "One indication of it -- I've been here at Fordham three years -- and (Jarvis) Garrett, he was a good player three years ago, and now he's coming off the bench for them. The fact that they've got depth, athleticism -- they play together, they play hard, and they defend -- that's a pretty good combination. I know last year, they really felt they could have won more than one. The fact that they are so defensive -- they guard so well, they guard the arc so well -- if they get the right matchups, they can go as far as they want."
"We don't always play perfect basketball, but I'm just not sure how many teams in the country show up every single night and give themselves a chance to win every single night," a proud Hurley candidly opined. "During the streak, or even the games we lost -- at Nevada, at Alabama, Oregon in the (NCAA) Tournament last year -- we had chances to win those games. I just think we show up every night. We show up with intensity and focus, and these guys are about winning. They've created that culture."