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