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34 days ‘til opening day: Will Rhode Island step up in an open A-10?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Rhode Island vs Oregon Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 10 couldn’t come soon enough.

As we slide through the final weeks before college basketball returns, we’ll look at one storyline about the upcoming season that lines up with the number of days until opening day. Keep coming back to see if we have the creativity and dedication to pull this off. No promises.

It’s Oct. 7 and we’re just 34 days from opening day.

Suddenly, Rhode Island may be the A-10’s power program.

The same URI that spent much of the 2000s under Jim Baron with good teams that remained at the edges of challenging for the NCAA Tournament. The same URI that hadn’t been in said tournament since 1999 before breaking through last season.

But last season was a in fact a break through, as the 34th ranked KenPom team surged in the second half. The Rams finished the regular season on a 9-2 run and went on to win their first A-10 tournament in 18 years. They then came a wink away from knocking off Oregon and heading to the Sweet 16.

That was all very good, and what happened afterwards may have been even better. The program weathered another offseason without Dan Hurley being poached, even though he was reportedly a candidate at Georgetown. Two league heavyweights weren’t as fortunate, as Dayton and VCU both saw their young, rising star head coaches hired away.

Does that leave a momentary void for URI to step into as the current league power?

The Rams return a group of guards that should make them the favorite in a hard-to-forecast league. E.C. Matthews looked stronger at the end of last season, and will be one year further removed from the knee injury that basically cost him the 2015-16 season. Stanford Robinson, Jared Terrell and a healthy Jarvis Garrett would start for most any team in the country, mid-major or not.

The trick will be in replacing departing senior forwards Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson. They were instrumental to a defense that swallowed up offenses all season, forming one of the country’s best rim-protecting duos. Sophomore forward Cyril Langevine should be able to offset some of that loss, as he flashed rim-protecting potential with a 6.0 percent block rate in just 13.2 minutes per game.

You certainly don’t replace players like Martin, who was the A-10 DPOY, and Iverson one-for-one. Some of that production could be met elsewhere, as sophomore guard Nick Dowtin (27.8 MPG in A-10 play) figures to see an expanded role, and is another rangy defender on a team that closed out as well as any on the perimeter.

VCU (Mike Rhoades) and Dayton (Anthony Grant) may well continue the good times, as both of their new coaches are good fits that have had success before. But in addition to going through a coaching change, both rosters lose important pieces. This includes the Flyers losing their tremendously successful Scoochie Smith-led senior class, and the Rams losing Mo Alie-Cox and Samir Doughty.

St. Bonaventure may have the league’s two best scorers in Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. Saint Joe’s has a dynamic backcourt duo of its own in Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble. And Saint Louis’ much-hyped talent will finally begin to take the court this season. The A-10 no doubt has plenty of realistic contenders, but none may be stronger than URI. Even with a grueling non-conference schedule, the Rams seem poised to reach 20 wins for the third time in four seasons, with a good shot to return to the NCAA Tournament.

In the last 20 or so years, streaks like that have been rare in the A-10, especially outside of VCU and Dayton. Saint Joe’s has seen soaring heights during Phil Martelli’s storied career. The same goes for Davidson and Bob McKillop. Saint Louis dominated the league for a brief time in the Rick Majerus/Jim Crews era. And Richmond jumped up for a two-year run of dominance from 2010-12.

But with the recent standard-bearers going through coaching changes, URI seems as equipped as any program in the league to immediately pounce on any stumble that may occur. The looming issue is that it could be plunged into its own uncertainty should Hurley leave.

Yet for 2017-18, it might be the Rams conference to lose.