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Dash to the Desert: URI Makes 1st NCAA Tourney since ’99; Friars Dance

Hassan Martin

One of the hottest college basketball teams in the nation resides in the Ocean State and returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. It’s Dan Hurley’s Rhode Island Rams (24-9), winners of eight straight games including a sweep of three in the Atlantic 10 Tournament in claiming the league’s automatic bid.

In vanquishing St. Bonaventure, Davidson, and VCU in Pittsburgh – and capturing the A10 trophy in the process – Rhode Island trailed for a total of 43 seconds all tournament. Playing as confidently as they have all season, Rhode Island is sharing the basketball exceptionally well and taking care of it too — evidenced by just six turnovers against VCU’s swarming defense.

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And while the Rhode Island offense stole the headlines with its fever-pitched three point shooting display this past weekend, it’s defense that remains the team’s calling card. The Rams held their three A10 tourney opponents to 63, 60, and 63 points, respectively. In particular, URI’s first-shot defense is at another level as we enter NCAA Tournament play. Guard play on the perimeter has been webbed and disruptive, and the communication and ability of the bigs to aid in ball screen defense has been at its best. Toss in a nod of recognition to the bench, with productive players who now understand their roles, and it becomes apparent why this team is on a run, and returned home to a hero’s welcome on Sunday night.

The result of all the recent great work? An-11 seed in Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament, Rhody will begin their Dash to the Desert and first round date with Creighton (25-9) of the Big East, the region’s 6-seed. The matchup offer several interesting subplots, including former URI great Preston Murphy – a member of the last Rhode Island NCAA Tourney team and now Creighton assistant – facing his alma mater. URI stars E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin were also offered scholarships by Creighton before becoming the cornerstones of Dan Hurley’s program.

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Creighton is talented and balanced, but they don’t love contact and physical play… and that’s what they’re going to encounter in facing the Rams. How Marcus Foster, Justin Patton and Greg McDermott’s Blue Jays respond and execute in the face of the relentless, physical style of Rhode Island is key (particularly given the loss of point guard Maurice Watson). Friday afternoon in Sacramento we’ll see how it shakes out.

Appreciate consistency in Providence

It’s becoming routine… even though it is anything but a given regardless of what league you play in (as Syracuse can attest). Once again, Providence (20-12) heard its named called on Selection Sunday — the fourth straight year Ed Cooley and the Friars are one of only 68 teams with a chance to win a national title, and he told YurView that his players were excited for the opportunity. Cooley should be commended for building a brand and program that is becoming a perennial entrant in your office pool.

Led by Big East Most Improved Player Kyron Cartwright, the league leader in assists, Providence travels to Dayton as part of the First Four pod of the tourney. The Friars will face Southern Cal (25-9) – again – which provides a stern test. The Trojans finished 5th in the tough Pac 12 during the regular season and offer balanced scoring like PC… but also significant size, as Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu go 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11 up front. Playing against length has been an issue for the Friars, so Emmitt Holt is a foreground figure for Providence in this one. His ability to avoid foul trouble and potentially become a foul magnet for the USC bigs can go a long way towards determining whether the Friars can send the Trojans packing two years in a row and earn a crack at 30-win SMU, the 6-seed, on Friday.

Last non-power five standing

The Committee’s job isn’t easy. And overall Mark Hollis’ group did a fine job this year. BUT, we once again have four outstanding non-power five schools facing off in the opening round. First, 7-seed Dayton must face 10-seed (yes, that’s not a typo… sadly) and 30-win program Wichita State. Archie Miller’s club made an Elite 8 run three years ago. Greg Marshall’s program is one of the very best in the land. Why have them play one another in Round 1? Now, one will be on a flight home by Friday night.

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In the West, two more programs in 7-seed St. Mary’s (29-4) and 10-seed VCU (26-8) will also do battle. St. Mary’s is the real deal and capable of making a run… VCU has a Final Four on its resume and sports a veteran crew led by JeQuan Lewis. Again, one of these teams goes home immediately.

Why not swap Marquette in the East with VCU? Or the Midwest region’s Oklahoma State with Wichita State? We’ll never know… But yet we do.

The Irish in March

A friend texted me while I was watching Duke hold off Notre Dame to win the ACC Championship over the weekend. He offered up this nugget: Notre Dame’s last four postseason losses have come at the hands of Kentucky, North Carolina (twice), and Duke.

So dispatching the Irish has been a feat only college basketball blue bloods have accomplished in recent times. It’s a testament to the outstanding job done by Mike Brey, who this year led the Irish to a 25-9 regular season finish and all the way to Saturday’s ACC Championship game. Yet the Irish are under-seeded at five in the West and will face 12-seed Princeton.

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Not exactly the respect we’d figure be accorded to a program that’s been to the Elite 8 the past two seasons. So Bonzie Colson (17.5ppg, 10.2rpg), V.J. Beachem (15ppg, 4.1rpg) and the rest of the Irish will set out in workmanlike manner to make noise in the Field of 68. The Princeton draw is no picnic, but its winnable and then the winner of Bucknell and West Virginia awaits for a trip to the Sweet 16. Don’t bet against it.

One to watch in each region

Midwest – (12) Nevada vs. (5) Iowa State

South – (6) Cincinnati vs. (11) Kansas State/(11) Wake Forest

West – (8) Northwestern vs. (9) Vanderbilt

East – (5) Virginia vs. (12) UNC Wilimington