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Strong Close Fuels Optimism as Enigmatic URI Rams Season Ends

Will Leviton
Photo Credit: Alan Hubbard

Rhode Island’s season ended in the Atlantic 10 semifinals on Saturday, courtesy of a 68-51 defeat at the hands of the fourth seeded St. Bonaventure Bonnies. The Rams (18-15, 11-10*) wrap the 2018-19 season winning six of their last seven contests, among them an upset of top seed VCU in the A-10 quarterfinals. The finish provides David Cox’s program a springboard heading into the offseason. Next year they’ll be expected to challenge atop the league with nearly all their firepower returning.

Any postseason?

Not likely. The Rams showed fight late in the year to twist the season narrative positively, but finish ranked 137 in the NET Rankings and 110 in the RPI which don’t merit inclusion into the NCAA or NIT fields, respectively. That leaves the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) as the only viable alternative. It’s a pay to play type arrangement that in specific situations Atlantic 10 teams have chosen to participate in (i.e. Richmond in 2012-13). But David Cox intimated postgame that Rhode Island isn’t likely to go that route. If healthy, it can make sense for young teams to collect some additional one-and-done experience but, on balance, one aspect is controlling here — brand.

Rhode Island is one of only a handful of teams in the nation that not only reached the NCAA Tournament but advanced in both the 2017 and 2018 campaigns. This year was a reset year, but program leadership wants to preserve signaling to recruits, scheduling partners, and its own players that the goal is to be among the field of 68, and that only the NIT – and not a lower tournament – functions as an “acceptable” alternative.

So long seniors

Two seniors – Ryan Preston and Will Leviton – will be graduating and their contributions will be missed. Let’s take each one in turn.

Preston, a strongly built forward at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, averaged 2.3 points and two rebounds per game this year, his second in Kingston. Though he experienced some trying times and played sparingly for a bulk of the year, Preston responded when called upon late – showing a sense of urgency and the character of a competitor when it mattered. Over the final five contests he averaged 15 minutes per night (double his overall season minutes per game average), along with 5.2ppg and 3.2rpg. In an overtime road win at Saint Joseph’s on March 5th, Preston tallied 12 points and six rebounds in a season high 30 minutes of action. His physicality in the post provided URI with needed depth. The communications studies major will now move on to his next chapter.

Leviton, a walk-on turned scholarship player from Providence, Rhode Island, will be remembered more for his spirit than numbers — and that is the ultimate compliment. In fact, his impact will leave a void next year that’s much larger than his 5-8, 150 pound frame. Leviton’s insane dance moves, infectious smile, and galvanizing attitude are qualities which proved indispensable to this year’s team. On the heels of back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, this year brought pressure upon the program’s rookie head coach, his staff, and its players. It was a weight that seemed significant at times, manifesting itself in the faces of many. Leviton, however, always kept perspective. He’d pick his teammates up when needed, literally and figuratively, and brought a joy to the huddle that was desperately needed. His servant leadership mentality and unwavering positivity will be greatly missed.

The season in one word

Enigmatic; not surprising, given the loss of five players now all playing professionally in one capacity or another and the transition to a new head coach. The early portion of the season was uneven as expected, followed by a swoon, and then trumped by a resolve-driven rally to claim a .500-plus record, a third straight A-10 Tournament semifinal or better appearance, and some momentum heading into 2019-20. Now it’s about player development, particularly from the freshmen who showed flashes but must work on their bodies, minds, and skill sets to see “jump-growth” that will propel them and the program moving forward. Next year the Rams will be lead by seniors Jeff Dowtin and Cyril Langevine, along with junior Fatts Russell, but how the now rising-sophomores develop is going to determine the more longer term trajectory of Rhode Island basketball.

Not in a vacuum

There’s still plenty of basketball to be played this year — including the A-10 Tournament Championship between St. Bonaventure and Saint Louis (yes, you’re supposed to abbreviate the “St.” in Bonaventure but spell it out for the Billikens; don’t ask me why) but peeking ahead to 2019-20 the Rams will return 96% of their scoring, 94% of their rebounding, and 99% of their assists. They’ll also add 6-7 Georgetown transfer Antwan Walker and a three man freshman class.

But if you remember nothing else from this weekend, remember, as raw as it may be, the names Kyle Lofton, Osun Osunniyi, and Dom Welch.

Remember they’re all just freshmen too, and while they won’t be flanked by Courtney Stockard and LaDarien Griffin next year who graduate, they are exemplary of the type of talent returning across the league.

Everyone on VCU except Michael Gilmore (7 mins per game) and Xavier Jackson (1.5 minutes per game) returns; Davidson’s entire starting five is back for Bob McKillop — including A-10 POY Jon Axel Gudmundsson; and at Dayton will be familiar faces Obi Toppin, Jalen Crutcher and Co. — you get the point.

The league’s young talent is all maturing, developing, and gaining invaluable experience on parallel paths. URI will be in the thick of things, but understand how the Rams fit in the A-10 ecosystem as a whole, not in a vacuum. It’s going to be a grind.