I don’t put much faith in Punxsutawney Phil and I don’t live so close to the land that the actual weather makes much practical difference to my life. For me, winter officially ends in the Ocean State when URI plays their last basketball game of the season. There’s still snow on the ground but, as far as I’m concerned, spring started when the clock ran out on the Rams’ chance to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament Saturday afternoon against Duke.
Time to dust off the garden tools and fishing gear, Rhode Island, the dream season is over.
While the days have been longer than the nights since the vernal equinox on Friday, there’s something bittersweet to starting spring so soon. The Rams didn’t extend my winter as long as did the fabled 1988 and 1997 teams. These are the two benchmarks by which every University of Rhode Island basketball team are judged against. In ’88, Tommy Garrick and Silk Owens carried the Rams as far as the Sweet 16, where they lost to Danny Ferry and Duke. In ’97, another pair of guards, Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley, almost upset Stanford in the Elite 8. March madness matters in college hoops and Jared Terrell and E.C. Mathews, this year’s backcourt duo du jour, couldn’t take the Rams as deep as did their predecessors.
But maybe there are more important things than going on a late season run, like those legendary teams of my youth. This squad won 17 straight games earlier in the winter, the longest win streak in D1 men’s basketball this year. They were ranked as high as 14, the best a URI team has ever registered in the history of the polls. It was the their second consecutive season in the NCAA Tournament. The seniors won 91 games, more wins than any other URI teammates have ever shared together.
Coach Dan Hurley assumed his rightful position as one of the most respected names in the game. He’ll be heavily recruited by some powerhouse programs this off-season, so the state of Rhode Island and its people need to convince him to continue building a championship-level program here in rural Southern Rhode Island. We’ve already got the best summer culture in the country down here, it makes sense to have the Rams anchor the South County off-season.
There’s another dynamic backcourt duo waiting for next winter to leave their mark on Rhode Island college basketball. And there’s every reason to assume Hurley and the Rams can extend next winter longer than this one. The trees have not even begun to bud yet, but I’m already waiting for the leaves to drop so Rhode Island can see if Fatts Russell and Jeff Downtin can best Terrell and E.C. Or perhaps Garrick and Owens. Maybe even Wheeler and Mobley. Tune in next winter to find out.