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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 20 Rhode Island Rams

Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell will help usher in a new era.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Oklahoma Sooners vs Rhode Island Rams Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 26-8 (15-3 A-10) 1st in A-10, lost to Duke in NCAA Tournament Round of 32 Key Returning Players: Jeff Dowtin (G, Jr.), Fatts Russell (G, So.), Cyril Langevine (F-C, Jr.)
Key Losses: Jared Terrell, E.C. Matthews, Stanford Robinson, Jarvis Garrett, Andre Berry Dan Hurley (coach to UConn)
Key Newcomers: Jermaine Harris (4-star, Rivals), Dana Tate (3-star, Rivals), Tyrese Martin (3-star Rivals), and Omar Silverio

When Dan Hurley elected to forego a pre-game Atlantic 10 conference championship banner ceremony in last season’s home opener against UNC Asheville, he was making a statement.

“Just as a program, if you have a high standard and you have expectations to be the best team every year in your league and championship-caliber, you enjoy it for a month after the season’s over,” Hurley said after the Rams’ 84-60 disposal of the Bulldogs. “And then when you have success, everyone’s gunning for you. You’ve got to quickly flip the script and become the hunter again, and that’s what we wanted to do.”

Well, Hurley’s early season standards were met as the Rams completed one of program’s most successful seasons, winning the A-10 tournament, reaching the NCAA Tournament second round for consecutive years, and breaking countless records dating back to the storied Frank Keaney era. After losing to Duke in the round of 32, Hurley left the Rams and accepted the head coaching job at UConn. Now, new coach Dave Cox, will try to pick up where Hurley left off.

Key Non-Conference Games

With a rookie coach, three core returners, and perhaps Rhode Island’s best recruiting classes coming in, the Rams have cobbled together another challenging OOC schedule.

URI will once again play one of the nation’s most heated rivalry games (this time on the road) against Big East foe Providence College. Other headlines include a fun Diamond Head Classic field and the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase against West Virginia.

Nov. 16 vs. Harvard
Dec. 1 at Providence
Dec. 16 vs. West Virginia (Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase)
Dec. 22 vs. Bucknell (Diamond Head Classic)
Dec 23 vs. TCU or Charlotte (Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic)

Three Things to Watch

Cox’s first head coaching gig

Unless you count three games at Rutgers on an interim basis in 2012-13 (he went 3-0, for what it’s worth) this is Cox’s first shot as a head coach.

Succeeding the legendary Hurley at URI after one of the school’s most celebrated seasons will be a challenge. However, Cox has been preparing for this opportunity his whole career with assistant and associate head coaching stints at Georgetown, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh. He appears to be more than qualified for his long-awaited debut in Kingston.

While it is hard to find fault in Hurley’s body of work in his six years with URI, Cox has to be given at least some of the credit in the areas of recruiting, scouting opponents, and serving as Hurley’s most trusted advisor on the bench.

At the press conference where Cox was named the 20th head coach at Rhode Island, he hinted on what to expect from him.

“We will position ourselves to make deep runs in the NCAA tournament,” said Cox. “We will be the aggressor on both sides of the ball by dictating, attacking and disrupting on defense. Pace, movement and flow will be the keys to our up-tempo style of play. It will be an exciting style of basketball which will produce amazing wins.”

How long until the new recruits make an impact?

Whether you have the most talented freshman in the nation like Duke and Kentucky or Rhode Island’s highly touted four newcomers, there will still be a learning curve. One key question is how long it takes four-star recruit Jermaine Harris to dominate the paint in Atlantic 10 Play.

Also, can Martin replicate the success he had against Duke five-star recruit Cam Reddish in their high school matchup last season? Will 6’8 combo-forward frosh Dana Tate provide the much-needed depth in the Rams’ front court off the bench? If the freshmen are ready for prime time, at least in conference games, you may be looking at URI’s third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

Will Russell and Langevine take substantial leaps?

Now that there will be more significant minutes allotted for URI’s talented duo of Russell, and Langevine. will their added playing time translate into substantial strides in their performance? Perhaps the biggest unknown commodity will be Russell, who many believe is poised to have a breakout season.

If Russell can knock down his threes more consistently, penetrate the lane, dish off to a much bigger front line, and create havoc to increase opponent turnovers, Rhode Island may have that one player who can take over a close game and lead the Rams to signature wins.

X-Factor

It’s Dowtin. Of course, he has exceeded all expectations since assuming the starting point guard position a few games into his freshman year. But the Rams will need Dowtin to play a little more selfishly by shooting more and passing less.

If Dowtin can do that, he may be the missing link Rhode Island will need to make up for losing 73 percent of its scoring from last year.