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Rhode Island’s non-conference schedule matches expectations

Good mid-majors are abundant, but the Rams top-25 buzz would get an even better test if a game with Duke materializes.

NCAA Basketball: Rhode Island at St. Joseph
A healthy E.C. Matthews has Rams fans dreaming big.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Look at most too early top-25 lists and the high expectations for Dan Hurley and Rhode Island are there. There’s now some context to match those expectations up against with the release of the Rams non-conference schedule. It looks like the pieces are there to set the stage for a special season.

Here’s a full look at the schedule below:

The Rams will pass the eye test with a healthy E.C. Matthews rejoining (an also healthy) Hassan Martin, Jared Terrell, Jarvis Garrett, Kuran Iverson and now-eligible Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson. The early buzz proves that, and though the non-conference lineup isn’t stacked with big names, it should give Rhode Island the RPI opportunity to back up the buzz.

Much of that should come from a run of games against mid-majors that will be favorites in their respective leagues. Valparaiso got Alec Peters back and will be a Horizon League force yet again. Houston should be a factor in the American race with Rob Gray and Damyean Dotson leading the way. Old Dominion should also be strong in CUSA, and Rick Byrd has done more than enough to assume Belmont will be solid.

Fellow top-25 favorite Cincinnati is the Rams’ best sure-fire opponent, but also leads to the glaring variable on this schedule. Beating the Bearcats at Mohegan Sun Arena and getting a game with Duke and all the exposure, marquee win and RPI ramifications that would come with it would be, clearly, huge.

In terms of preparing for A-10 play, the schedule will test a Rhode Island offense that was 116th in KenPom offensive efficiency last year and scored under 60 points in four of nine conference losses.

Matthews was third in the league in scoring (16.9 points per game) and sixth in effective field goal percentage (49.0%) in 2014-15 and his return will be an obvious boost. Facing Cincinnati (15th in KenPom defensive efficiency last season) and Valparaiso (9th) is a good tuneup for fellow A-10 contenders Dayton and VCU, both of which should be challenges defensively.

The Providence game also can’t be overlooked. It may not have as much resume potential with Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil gone, but it’s a great opportunity for the Rams to snap a five-game losing streak against the Friars. That must be especially exciting for Rams’ fans after a close, Matthews-less loss to their rival last season.

If there’s one concern, other than the chance that glitzy Duke match up never materializes, it’s that the best opportunities for resume-building are on the road. Sure, if the Rams are worthy of the hype and their first tournament bid since 1999, they should theoretically be able to beat good competition on the road. But if they come up short at Houston and Valparaiso, and don’t beat Cincinnati on a neutral floor, they’ll be left with little to show from the non-conference.

That’s not a scenario a healthy A-10 run can’t fix, but it’s not somewhere Rhode Island wants to be, especially after a year in which a good St. Bonaventure team was left at the altar on Selection Sunday after no truly great wins in November or December.