The Rhode Island Rams’ 2016-17 season came to an end in a tight battle against No. 3 Oregon in a 75-72 loss Sunday night in Sacramento, Calif.
Though Dan Hurley’s scrappy squad led at halftime and for most of the second half, the Ducks closed in late and a three by sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey with 38 seconds left gave them the win.
The game had all the trappings of another chapter in Rhode Island’s Cinderella story. URI was on the bubble late in the season, but seemed to be getting hot at the right time. Adding to the brewing magic, a backup guard scored 19 points as the Rams built a late lead for their upset bid.
Unfortunately, Dorsey (27 points on 9-of-10 FG, 5 rebounds) and junior forward Dillon Brooks (19 points, 7 rebounds) were too much to handle down the stretch. Oregon advances to the Sweet 16 where it will face No. 7 Michigan. The Wolverines are coming off a 73-69 upset win over No. 2 Louisville on Sunday in Indianapolis.
After an up-and-down start to the season, Rhode Island punched its ticket with an eight-game winning streak and the A-10 Tournament crown, securing the Rams’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since their Elite Eight appearance in 1998. They last won their conference tournament in 1999.
Former NBA All-Star Lamar Odom was a part of that team. Easily the school’s most prominent athletic alumnus, Odom was on hand for their first-round upset of No. 6 Creighton. Freshman guard Justin Dowtin led the charge with a career-high 23 points. Memphis transfer Kuran Iverson added 17 while fellow senior Hassan Martin scored 12.
That game was played in Sacramento and, as fate would have it, URI still enjoyed strong fan support. For Dan Hurley, it was an emotional return to the city where his older brother Bobby, a former Duke star, was hospitalized due to a car accident which ultimately cut his NBA career short.
Coaching is deeply engrained in the Hurley family blood. The brothers’ father, Bob Hurley Sr., is one of three high school head coaches in the Naismith Hall of Fame thanks to his success at New Jersey power St. Anthony’s High School. His son Bobby served as an assistant with Dan before getting his own head coaching job at Buffalo. He’s now at the helm of Arizona State in the Pac-12.
“I know the conditions of the program in terms of just where they stood,” Bobby Hurley told the Sacramento Bee. “To have that strong class he recruited with E.C. Matthews, Hassan Martin, and to see him build it from the ground up, just very proud of him and what he’s fought through.
“He deserves this so much.”
Dan was a less decorated player than his brother, getting into coaching after graduating from Seton Hall in 1996. He spent four years as an assistant at Rutgers before taking charge of the St. Benedict’s Prep program for nine years. He then moved on to the college ranks, where he spent two seasons at Wagner before taking over at Rhode Island after a 25-5 season with the Seahawks.
He got URI to 20 wins in 2015, which raised expectations heading into the 2016 season. Those hopes quickly died when star guard Matthews went down with an ACL injury in the first game of the season.
With Matthews slated to return and an experienced core, the Rams headed into this season with a preseason ranking for the first time since 1998.
The non-conference slate got off to a good start, with a win over Cincinnati in the fourth game, but URI quickly fell out of the top-25 after back-to-back losses to Valpariso and Providence. Another loss came shortly to Houston. Though all three losses came on the road to solid teams, the Rams had fallen out of top-25 consideration and into the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Early struggles in the conference slate didn’t help their cause. Losses to La Salle (No. 137 KenPom, No. 135 RPI) and Fordham (No. 204 KenPom, 215 RPI) at home tanked their stock. Things began to turn around, however, as two road wins preceded a big victory over VCU and the regular season ended with an overtime triumph over Davidson.
They then took three games in a row to claim the program’s first conference tournament title since the Clinton administration. The win over Creighton in the opening round is a cherry on top of their success sundae.
After ending a downtrodden progam’s lengthy NCAA Tournament absence and grabbing a meaningful upset win, beating Creighton gave URI its first victory over a Big East team in its past nine tries.
Dan Hurley is going to have his coaching options this offseason. There are a few interesting vacancies in the coaching market and given his pedigree, he will be a valued commodity.
Hurley was considered for the Rutgers opening the last offseason before it was filled by Steve Pikiell, who had just led Stony Brook to a NCAA Tournament appearance.
Photo: Rhody hoops