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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 15 Rhode Island Rams

All eyes are on VCU in the Atlantic 10. But what about the other Rams?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Record: 18-15, 9-9 A10

Key Returning Players: Jeff Dowtin (RS-Sr., G), Cyril Langevine (RS-Sr., PF-C), Fatts Russell (RS-Jr., G)
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Jeremy Sheppard (Jr, G via College of Central Florida), Antwan Walker (So, PF via Georgetown), DJ Johnson (Jr. PF via Portland), Gregory Hammond (Fr, G. No 169 24/7 Composite), Jacob Toppin (Fr, F) Mekhi Long (Fr. No. 87 24/7 Composite)

If you pay close attention to any of the “Way too Early” preseason NCAA Tournament brackets, then Rhode Island will not dance in the 2019-20 season.

But if there is one team in position to prove the prognosticators wrong, it’s Rhode Island. The Rams bring virtually everyone back from a team that ended the season on fire after winning six of their last seven games and storming into the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals.

The Rams also bring back three pieces from their 2017-18 A-10-title-winning team that reached the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament, with Jeff Dowtin, Cyril Langevine, and Fatts Russell. Combine this with an impressive collection of reinforcements and maybe we are seeing the makings of a bonafide NCAA Tournament team.

Key non-conference games

Six 20-win teams. Six postseason teams. Four nationally televised appearances. Two SEC teams, one ACC, one Big East and one Big 12 team.

Nov. 9 at Maryland
Nov. 16 vs. Alabama
Nov. 24 vs LSU (in Jamaica)
Dec. 1 at West Virginia
Dec. 6 vs. Providence

Five things to watch

The starting five is back

Dowtin, Russell, Tyrese Martin, Langevine, and Jermaine Harris — all starters on last season’s team — are back. So, it’s only logical to expect significant improvement from that formidable quintet. Those five combined for 81 percent of Rhody’s scoring last year, 71 percent of its assists, and 66 percent of its rebounds. Throw in a talented core of underclassmen around them, and the Rams are going to have plenty of firepower.

The Big Three

No, we are not talking about any of the NBA versions of the “Big Three.” Rhody comes in strong with Dowtin, Langevine, and Russell. Even in a bullish 2019-20 Atlantic 10 season, it’s hard to find another conference team with as an imposing triumvirate of star players. In fact, it is not farfetched to think any combination or all three Rams upperclassmen could make the A-10 All Conference first-team and second-team. They could also emerge as conference Player of the Year candidates.



The schedule

The Rams have compiled one of the most unforgiving non-conference schedules in the nation. It features four preseason Top 25 teams in Maryland, LSU, VCU, and Davidson, as well as a slew of other Quadrant 1 caliber opponents like Alabama, Providence, Dayton, St. Bonaventure, Western Kentucky, and West Virginia.



This merciless OOC challenge also presents a tremendous opportunity for the more seasoned Rams. Even if Rhode Island doesn’t dominate in the Atlantic 10 — and keep in mind the Rams play VCU and Davidson twice each — their non-league schedule could be enough to get them an at-large bid.



A now-proven head coach

The Rams’ second-year coach passed the litmus test by finishing his first season on a high note — just one victory shy from the A-10 finals, Cox team displayed resiliency despite losing 73 percent of his scoring from the previous season. Even with a depleted roster, he still found a way to steer the team to signature wins over West Virginia, Dayton, St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis and VCU twice. 



This team is deep

There is a redshirt alert in Kingston. This may be one of Rhody’s deepest teams in recent memory. Cox has brought in a multi-talented collection of transfers and freshman, where five out of the six newcomers stand 6’5 or taller. And the lengthy Rams return six of their top seven scorers. This impressive assemblage of talent should allow URI to easily go 10 deep and possibly 12 if they so desire.

X-Factor

Last year, Harris, a 6’-9” sophomore PF/C, was considered to be one of the most heralded Rhode Island recruits (84 Rivals, top 20 power forward) since URI lured four-star guard E.C. Matthews.

Harris, no doubt, was confronted with some growing pains his freshman year. On top of enduring the difficult transition from high school to Division I college basketball, he appeared to be suffering from a lingering injury, which understandably hampered his performance and development.

If Harris matures into the player who was a four-star recruit and sought after by some of the best programs in the nation (Kansas, Xavier, and Georgetown), he could be the dominant big man that changes the complexion of the team. With Harris’s emergence, Rhode Island would have the firepower to not only challenge the elite Atlantic 10 teams for a title but make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.

Suddenly, the starting five could potentially transform into the most talented in the conference with star power at every position. Harris’s inside-outside game would complement Rhody’s core four in Dowtin, Russell, Langevine and Martin, who are at or near the top of their respective positions in the A-10.

It’s possibly the worst-kept secret that the A-10 is ready to make a splash in 2019-20. That day-in, day-out grind will be a challenge and there’s sure to be some bumps in the road. But the same could be said for every time in the conference.

One thing remains guaranteed: There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Rams in year two of the Cox regime.