Growing pains. Like an 8-year-old who wakes up in the middle of the night complaining to his mother that his legs are hurting.
Or for this case, like what seems to be the new storyline out of Kingston this winter. The Rhode Island Rams are growing and the remainder of the non-conference slate leaves opportunities for the Rams to expedite the growth process.
The expectation has changed in Kingston.
Prior to November 2016, Rhode Island still hadn’t made an NCAA tournament appearance in nearly 20 years. The expectation wasn’t so much “tournament or bust” but rather, when the Rams didn’t make postseason contention, it was the same old song and dance.
Back-to-back NCAAs have been a double edged sword for Rhode Island fans. In one breath, there is a sense of expectation. Fans are expecting wins. Expecting competitive games. Expecting a third-straight trip to basketball in March. In the next breath, the realization that the cornerstone pieces to those NCAA tournament teams have graduated, leaving the future in the hands of Jeff Dowtin, Cyril Langevine, Fatts Russell and four freshman.
Through the first six games of the season Rhode Island hasn’t impressed. Six games is a small sample size. It still remains entirely too early to judge, especially given the state of the Atlantic 10, where I hesitate to say whether there is one team in the top six that is a head above anybody else.
Rhode Island will continue to grow on and off the floor over the next three weeks. They have another true road game vs. Holy Cross this weekend. For past Rhode Island teams, a matchup with Holy Cross wouldn’t have had fans circling their calendars. But, given the Rams road woes vs. the College of Charleston and most recently at Providence, Saturday presents an opportunity for Rhode Island to begin to change that narrative.
After that, it’s four straight neutral site games vs. quality competition. Next Sunday the Rams head to Mohegan Sun for a matchup with Bob Huggins and the University of West Virginia. After that the Rams enjoy the Christmas holiday at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. They’ll play three games over the course of four days. Win, lose or draw, there is a significant difference between playing schools like Bryant, Stony Brook or Harvard at home and battling Power 5 competition on a neutral court.
The travel, the atmospheres, the energy, through it all, what matters most is the Rams get thrown into the fire. What better way to grow in something than by simply doing it? Freshman will be forced to play. Russell’s approach will have to change. The true leaders on this team will emerge.
Not to underplay the significance of wins in the non conference portion of the schedule, but the first half of the season will prepare the Rams for the Atlantic 10 slate. In a conference where the gap between the group of top tier teams and the rest is substantial, Rhode Island presents itself an opportunity to be a top-four finisher in the A-10.
With opportunities to grow, mature and maybe steal a game in December, Rhode Island is preparing for the future through each game, win or lose. Conference play is the immediate future. As the youth comes around, Rhode Island will be equipped for their conference slate.