The task of rejuvenating a struggling basketball program can be a difficult one, and that was certainly the case for Dan Hurley when he accepted the Rhode Island coaching job in the spring of 2012. The Rams were coming off of a seven-win season, with roster turnover and poor play being major issues. As expected the Rams took their lumps in 2012-13, winning a total of eight games and finishing with a 3-13 record in Atlantic 10 play.
But hope springs eternal, and prior to the start of this season the presence of some talented newcomers had many expecting the Rams to make strides in 2013-14. On Saturday night Hurley’s Rams took an important step in the right direction, winning 74-70 at LSU with two first-year players among the key contributors.
Guard E.C. Matthews, who along with forward Hassan Martin was expected to be an impact freshman this season, accounted for 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists and Rutgers transfer Gilvydas Biruta added 19 points and 14 rebounds for the Rams. Senior guard Xavier Munford, who joined the program as a junior college transfer and is the A-10’s leading returning scorer from last season, added 17 points to go along with six rebounds and Biggie Minnis dished out six assists.
For a team that entered the game having one just one true road game this season, at Brown on Thursday, winning LSU represents an important step in the right direction.
“This was a great win. LSU is a really talented, well-coached team,” Hurley said after the game according to the school’s website. “We had a stretch where we struggled against their pressure, but our team had great resolve. The tough road schedule we have played so far helped us tonight. We are thrilled to be a nine-win team.”
Why was Rhode Island able to win at LSU? One area to consider would be the rebounding numbers. Facing one of the most talented front courts in the SEC, Rhode Island rebounded 43.2% of its missed shots and out-rebounded the Tigers 46-32 on the night. While that didn’t lead to an edge in either second-chance points (14-8 LSU) or points in the paint (34-26 LSU), for Rhode Island to hold its own when facing the likes of Jordan Mickey and Johnny O’Bryant III speaks volumes of the progress being made in Kingston.
Saturday’s result gives Rhode Island some positive momentum as they move on to Atlantic 10 play, and they’ll need it with expected contender Saint Louis visiting the Ryan Center on Tuesday night. But before moving on to that contest, what Rhode Island accomplished in Baton Rouge is something that its fans need to take notice of. While their win doesn’t mean that the rebuilding process is complete, it does serve as more evidence that coach Hurley and his staff have the Rams moving in the right direction.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
The Atlantic 10 was not immune to conference realignment, as five teams have moved either in or out of the conference this season with a sixth team (Davidson) joining the A-10 for 2014-2015. The conference lost Butler after its one-year stint, as well as Charlotte, Temple and Xavier. For all the losses the conference still fields VCU — a top-25 team to start the season — and several teams that have expectations of going to the NCAA tournament, including La Salle, Saint Louis and UMass. The conference has a lot of momentum following a year that saw all five bids advance, and despite the losses of four programs, the Atlantic 10 has another promising season on the horizon.
IN: George Mason OUT: Butler, Charlotte, Temple, Xavier
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW:
1. Despite the losses, the league is still strong: The conference is down, but not out after losing two of the five teams that secured NCAA tournament bids last season. If you take the four departing schools out the equation, the Atlantic 10 still had five teams that finished in the RPI top 100 last season, and that’s before you take into account the expected improvement of Rhode Island, Dayton and George Washington.
3. UMass got their star back: UMass point guard Chaz Williams had a chance to skip his senior year and play in Turkey, though decided to return because of unfinished business both in the classroom and on the court. That’s enormous news for Derek Kellogg, as Williams is one of the best point guards in the country and a huge part of the Minutemen’s attack.
4. Guards. Lots and lots of guards: The back courts in this conference will be great to watch, especially the teams at the top of the league. We know about VCU’s guards and La Salle’s back court is no longer a secret thanks to their Sweet 16 run, and Williams is joined by Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon at UMass this year. Rhode Island, St. Joe’s, Dayton, St. Louis. There’s plenty of back court talent here.
5. The Atlantic 10 has its games on the NBC Sports Network this year: 25 regular season games can be seen on the NBC Sports Network. The full schedule of games can been seen here.
PRESEASON ATLANTIC 10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chaz Williams, UMass
Coming off another productive year, the senior point guard has one more shot at an NCAA tournament. He averaged 15.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game last season as a junior, and this year will have familiar pieces and new weapons to utilize. Cady Lalanne and Raphiael Putney return in the UMass front court and Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon is eligible after sitting out last season. Williams can not only grab player of the year honors, he can also advance UMass to the Big Dance for the first time since 1998.
THE REST OF THE ATLANTIC 10 FIRST TEAM
Tyreek Duren, La Salle: Leading the La Salle perimeter attack this season after a junior campaign averaging 14.2 points a game
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis: The senior forward helped the Billikens capture the A10 title with 14.0 points per game and 7.7 rebounds.
Juvonte Reddic, VCU: Shaka Smart will look to Reddic to man the VCU frontline. The senior forward shot 57 percent from the field a season ago, grabbing 8.1 rebounds per game.
Xavier Munford, Rhode Island: The Rams are looking to make the next step in the rebuilding process and Munford can help in his last season at URI. With Munford is the top scorer returning to the conference this season.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:
Isaiah Armwood, George Washington
Derrick Gordon, UMass
Treveon Graham, VCU
E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
Tyrone Garland, La Salle
BREAKOUT STAR: Tyrone Garland, La Salle
Garland, who transferred into the program from Virginia Tech, was a lightening bolt for John Giannini’s team last season. His “Southwest Philly Floater” is the reason they made it to the second weekend of the Big Dance. But with Ramon Galloway gone and graduated, Garland’s role for the Explorers will have to expand. If they are going to make a push for the A-10 title, Garland will need to have a big season. We expect just that.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Derek Kellogg, UMass
Kellogg is under pressure this season, but he isn’t necessarily on the “hot seat”. Kellogg is now in his sixth season and is still looking to take his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament. UMass was on the wrong side of the bubble this year, but with the returners he has the Minutemen have realistic chances to be one of the 68 teams come March.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … The league lost Butler, Temple and Xavier and still got five teams into the tournament.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: The guard play in the league. Seems like everyone has an all-conference caliber player in their back court.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:
1. VCU: Shaka Smart returns Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic, two all-conference caliber players. The Rams a couple pieces in their back court, but there is still plenty of depth on the roster. Point guard play, and the new hand-checking rules, will be the keys to their season. 2. UMass: Five A-10 teams received bids to the tournament last March, but the Minutemen were on the outside looking in. This season UMass has a favorable conference schedule — home games against La Salle, Saint Louis and VCU — which could help them finishing higher in the conference standings. 3. Saint Louis: The Billikens return leading scorer Dwayne Evans, as well as Mike McCall, Jordair Jett and Rob Loe, who were key components to Saint Louis’ top scoring defense in the A-10 a season ago. 4. La Salle: The Explorers made the deepest run in the tournament of any conference team last spring, but lost Ramon Galloway, the team’s leading scorer. Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland return to lead La Salle’s perimeter attack. 5. Richmond: Darien Brothers is gone, but the Spiders have the next three top scorers from a season ago back in the mix this year. 6. Rhode Island: Dan Hurley is still building up that URI program, and this is the season they can make the jump. The Rams add Gilvydas Biruta from Rutgers and have a freshman tandem of Hassan Martin and E.C. Matthews in the lineup this year to go along with Xavier Munford, who poured in 17. 4 a game in 2012-2013. 7. Dayton: Archie Miller’s team should improve even without Kevin Dillard. Matt Kavanaugh returns from suspension and Devin Oliver, Vee Sanford and Dyshawn Pierre all return as starters. 8. St. Joseph’s: Phil Martelli’s team finished 10th in the conference a season ago after being pegged as the preseason favorite. This year, three seniors — Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic — will lead the Hawks. 9. George Mason: The newcomers to the the conference returns a lot of talent from last year’s 22-win team, including Sherrod Wright. 10. George Washington: Eight freshmen or sophomores are on the roster. Isaiah Armwood provides a nice player inside, and Mo Creek joins the team from Indiana. 11. St. Bonaventure: Roster features a lot of newcomers to go along with seniors Charlon Kloof, Matthew Wright and Marquise Simmons and junior Youssou Ndoye, though none of them averaged double figures last year. 12. Fordham: Jon Severe, a three-star recruit and Rivals150 in the Class of 2013, should be fun to watch for Fordham. 13. Duquesne: Jim Ferry is still putting the pieces in to place, but does have Derrick Colter coming back after a strong freshman season in the Dukes’ back court.