Danny Hurley has Rhode Island heading in the right direction

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Danny Hurley knew that he’d have an uphill battle when he took over for Jim Baron at Rhode Island.

Forget, for a second, the fact that the Rams are coming off of a season where they managed to win just seven games, because that would just be too obvious. Maybe the fact that he’s coaching a team that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since people were still concerned about Y2K is a good indicator. Or how about the fact that the Rams only bring back four players from last year’s rotation — which managed to win just seven games, remember — two of whom missed a combined 30 games. Should I even mention that Hurley has just eight scholarship players eligible this season?

An empty cupboard at a program a long way from having relevant basketball tradition is hardly an ideal situation.

“Right now we’re not a good team,” Hurley said after his team lost to No. 4 Ohio State 69-58 in the semifinals of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. “We’re transitioning to try and become one.”

Moral victories aren’t the kind of wins that Hurley is used to collecting. But at this point in the program’s development, they are going to be in greater supply, and on Saturday night, Hurley’s team notched a definitive moral victory. The Rams outplayed Ohio State in the first half, and if it wasn’t for three ugly possessions in the final 1:30 of the half that led to a 7-0 Buckeye run, URI would have gone into the break with the lead.

In the second half, every time it looked like Ohio State was ready to pull away, the Rams had an answer. Mike Powell hit back-to-back threes with one second left on the shot clock to help erase an eight point lead early in the half. When OSU pushed the lead to 14 later in the half, the Rams responded with an 8-2 spurt to keep in striking distance. URI was completely overmatched and out-talented, but that didn’t keep them from fighting and scrapping and playing like they believed they deserved to win.

It’s not much, but it’s something. And coming off of a 19 point loss to lowly Virginia Tech and a 12 point loss to Kyle O’Quinn-less Norfolk State, this kind of performance a step in the right direction.

“We understand, the coaches and everyone involved in the program understand, the challenges that we’re facing in our first year here,” Hurley said. “All this does for us is strengthen our resolve to find a way to succeed.”

Hurley has pedigree. He won (a lot) as a high school coach at St. Benedict’s in New Jersey. He would have won a lot at his last stop — Wagner College — if he had been there for more than just two years. His father is Hall of Fame St. Anthony’s High School head coach Bob Hurley. His brother, an assistant on his staff, is Bobby Hurley, the former all-american point guard at Duke.

Losing won’t last long for Rhody.

“Obviously with his track record, he’s going to do a great job,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “I think it’s a great set up. With his background, he’s going to get great players up there. I think he’s got the right approach with what he’s doing.”

“With the way they played tonight, I think he might get there a little bit quicker than he thought he would.”

Help is on the way. Rhode Island has three transfers sitting out this season that could play a lot of minutes for the Rams this year — Gil Biruta from Rutgers, DeShon Minnis from Texas Tech and Jarelle Reischel from Rice. He’s also got a quality recruiting class coming in, with 6-foot-6 forward Hassan Martin and EC Matthews, a top 50 scoring guard from Detroit, joining the mix.

If the Rams can continue to play with the effort and determination that they did on Saturday with next season’s talent infusion, they’ll make some serious noise in the Atlantic 10.

How hard did they play on Saturday?

The large contingent of Rhode Island fans that made the 45 minute drive to Mohegan Sun Arena gave the Rams a standing ovation as they left the court.

“It felt good,” sophomore point guard Mike Powell said, “but I wish they were cheering because we won.”

It’ll come.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.