Rhode Island Rams – 2017 season and a look ahead

Hassan Martin URI

The Rhode Island Rams delivered in 2017 — in many ways.

Dan Hurley’s team won 25 games. It claimed the program’s first Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship since 1999. It appeared in the NCAA Tournament, ending a 17+ year drought. And it advanced — downing Big East foe Creighton and going nip-and-tuck with third seed Oregon before falling in the Round of 32.

Here are some developments and insights from this season — and a look ahead to what’s on the horizon.

Respect to the seniors.

When the final horn sounded against Oregon, it marked the end of the collegiate careers of forwards Kuran Iverson and Hassan Martin.

The 6-9 Iverson, a transfer from Memphis, averaged 9.6ppg and 7.3 rebounds per game this year for the Rams, providing length, athleticism, and unique ball skills for a player his size. With the ability to function as a facilitator from the elbow or grab a defensive board and take it from end-to-end, his contributions will be missed. Beyond the numbers, Iverson’s path served as a case study in personal development, player development and growth — and both he and the URI staff deserve credit. Talented but erratic earlier in his career, KI learned to put his team before himself the past two seasons under Hurley. With a mammoth 23-rebound effort against Richmond in A10 play, Iverson signaled not only his commitment to the glass, but his commitment to the role that best served his team.

Hassan Martin, the cornerstone commitment received from Dan Hurley back in 2012-13, is one of the most important players ever to don Keaney Blue. Martin collected 1300 points, 784 rebounds and 317 blocks (2.6bpg) in his career, playing through pain during significant stretches of both his junior and senior seasons. One of the most fearsome shot-blockers in Atlantic 10 history at just 6-7, Martin was named the A-10s Defensive Player of the Year his junior and senior seasons.

More than the stats are the substance of Martin, the person. The word ‘complain’ does not exist in his world and the talented pivot presence epitomized leading by example. He was the heart of the Rhode Island Rams on the floor from 2013-14 forward and his presence on and off the floor is irreplaceable. On a personal note, one of the finest collegiate players I’ve ever had the pleasure of covering.

Examining the returnees.

Well, there are plenty of them. And, despite the way the coaching carousel always turns this time of year (and, yes, I’m aware of certain jobs opening where Hurley’s name is/will be mentioned), that’s not a subject for this column. Here, we’ll be taking a look at the guys on the floor.

It starts with the guards. E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell, Stan Robinson, Jeff Dowtin, Jarvis Garrett, Christion Thompson and newcomer Daron “Fatts” Russell are as deep and talented a collection of perimeter players as the Atlantic 10 will offer. Taking nothing away from the others, three I’ll be watching intently are Matthews, Robinson and Dowtin.

Matthews (14.9ppg, 4.3rpg) should return for his senior season after navigating through a successful immediate-post-injury season in 2016-17. Look for him to be more explosive off the bounce, which will afford him “respect” spacing on his jumper. On the other end of the floor, if Matthews can tighten upon his awareness and execution it will serve him well.

Robinson (6.4ppg, 2.6rpg) is an interesting player in this bunch and after his torrid performance against Oregon in the season finale, the Indiana transfer springboards into the offseason with supreme confidence. Expect Robinson to make a leap next year in both production and efficiency. The key is consistent mental focus on both ends, whether it be defensive positioning or shot selection. The physical tools are there.

The 6-3 freshman Dowtin (5.5ppg; 69 assists to 25 turnovers) seized the opportunity to play important minutes when Garrett was sidelined and offered a complementary skill set that fit perfectly with the Rams style of play. Offensively, he strikes the right balance between orchestrator and play-maker. His height affords him over-the-top vision and he possesses deceptive quickness when he sees an edge, both helpful in late shot clock situations. Defensively, he’s long and, though not ultra-quick, he’ll continue to get better as an on-ball defender because of his high IQ. His ability to use that length and take proper angles will frustrate opponents.

If you want to talk about any other guards — @message me on Twitter @CDiSano44.

What about the interior?

When you lose two forwards the caliber of Martin and Iverson, you’re not going to be better on the interior. But the Rams have ways of compensating for the void.

First, the backlog of talented guards will allow them to play 3-guard lineups often and – against many opponents – they’ll be able to get away with it. For paint presence, 6-8 freshman Cyril Langevine acquitted himself well, averaging 4.5 rebounds per game in just 13.2 minutes of action. That’s 13.5 rebounds per 40 minutes. Langevine tracks it exceptionally well out of his own area and has a knack for avoiding cheap fouls. Usually, if he’s flagged, he’s earned it. He showed improvement in operating around the bucket offensively as the year wore on, but must still make significant strides here to allow him to capitalize on the rebounds he collects on the offensive end. Just a rising sophomore in 2017-18, his ceiling is high.

Expect 6-8 Nicola Akele, though not a banger by nature, to step up. He has similar physical attributes to the departed Iverson and the key will be flipping the switch to embrace the challenge on the boards. Andre Berry, Mike Layssard and Mike Tertsea (redshirted in 2016-17) will also see time and can each address some of the gaps on the interior, depending on opponent and game situation.

However, with one remaining scholarship, expect Hurley and staff to target another forward. Ideally, either a fifth year or JUCO transfer — but I’ll make the case that a JUCO transfer is a better fit. Why? It’s simple — two years. After next season, four guards and Berry will graduate. So a JUCO big is a more ideal fit to partner with currently known producers like Dowtin, Langevine, Akele, and Thompson for the next two seasons and maintain a higher floor, talent-wise for the program. The player can also offer continuity and an understanding of Hurley’s schemes — as opposed re-teaching another fifth year player on a one-year basis, for example.

What type of JUCO forward? Not a superstar (though that would be nice), but somebody with bulk who can help on the boards and who also owns a capable back to the basket game. Think an Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed type (JUCO who wrapped up his two years at VCU this season) who is agile enough to play in the scheme defensively and can score in post-isolation situations. This necessitates opposing guards needing to dig it from him on entry touches, bring double-teams to force it out of his hands… or he operates one-on-one in the post. The result: spacing. If Rhode Island has another interior player who can create spacing for the guards like Martin did… opponents will shudder.

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Early look at the Atlantic 10 next year.

Rhode Island as presently constituted will be the class of the Atlantic 10 next season. Let’s ignore incoming freshmen because, let’s face it, absent extraordinary circumstances, freshmen dependent teams winning is the exception rather than the rule (See UMass 2016-17; or if you’re not a Derek Kellogg fan, even the 2013-14 Rams, 14-18, with Matthews and Martin). Here’s a line on each team, listed alphabetically:

> Davidson – Jack Gibbs is gone; Peyton Aldridge and up-and-comers Jon Axel Gudmundsson and KiShawn Pritchett remain.

> Dayton – Losing Smith, Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard, Kyle Davis; winningest class in school history.

> Duquesne – Jim Ferry out as coach. May lose some talented freshmen, and who will be the next coach?

> Fordham – Joseph Chartouny and Antwoine Anderson return.

> George Mason – Dave Paulsen got it going in Fairfax in a very short time. Team on the rise.

> George Washington – Maurice Joseph rightfully hired as new head coach. No Tyler Cavanaugh, but some solid pieces.

> La Salle – Doc John’s transfer trio of B.J. Johnson, Pookie Powell and Tony Washington will be comfortable in year two.

> UMass – Once the coaching craziness is settled, will the acclaimed freshman class stick around?

> Richmond – No T.J. Cline or ShawnDre’ Jones. Good young guards but perhaps a short-term step back.

> Saint Joseph’s – Shavar Newkirk, Lamarr Kimble, Pierfrancesco Oliva return from injury to team with Charlie Brown. Martelli’s team will be tougher.

> Saint Louis – Travis Ford welcomes three talented D-1 transfers. Expect a significant jump.

> St. Bonaventure – Matt Mobley & Jaylen Adams are back. All you need to know.

> VCU – Mike Rhoades can coach. But six seniors saying goodbye. Jonathan Williams, Samir Doughty and Justin Tillman will lead the Rams.