Looking ahead: Rhode Island Rams

It's never too early to look ahead to next season. In the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and for those outside the Power 5 that could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Rhode Island Rams.

The biggest signing for Rhode Island came April 1.

That’s when the school administration inked head coach Danny Hurley to a six-year extension. Now, in sports, contracts aren’t necessarily as binding as they might otherwise seem. But the school’s wise move -- and more Hurley’s willingness to sign on the dotted line -- ranks as the most critical offseason move the Rams will make.

Hurley, who turned the stagnant program around in just three years, already was on St. John’s short list this year, and with Rhode Island poised for greater success this season, his name will continually be linked to other jobs. The extension doesn’t mean he’ll stay forever, but it serves as an important good-faith agreement for a school that suddenly finds itself catapulting up the Atlantic 10 standings -- and more than likely into the NCAA tournament field this season.

Even more, the Rams will be one of the non-Power 5 teams on everybody’s lips, a hot pick to turn heads all season. For a team that hasn’t seen an NCAA field since 1999, that’s no small accomplishment. But Hurley has made such expectations realistic, with both a 23-10 record last season and a roster filled with talented returners, transfers and freshmen.

The Atlantic 10 long has been a league where folks have looked for NCAA upstarts and the next big thing in coaching circles.

Rhode Island now is both.

What the immediate future holds: E.C Matthews is back. We can just stop typing there, really. The guard, who averaged 16.9 points per game last season, is nothing shy of sensational -- so good that he toyed with leaving early. Returning for his junior year is probably the wise choice and elevates him to the top of the league’s player of the year list.

Matthews also elevates Rhode Island into a team that, should it make the tourney, will be a hot pick to win a game or two. He’s the kind of player who can take over a game and easily become a March Cinderella darling.

So that should be enough, really. Except Matthews is just the beginning. Winning despite one of the youngest rosters in college basketball a year ago, Rhode Island is now reaping the benefits of all that youth, with what will perhaps be the best starting five in the league.

Hurley used a three-guard offense quite effectively last season and all three return: Matthews, Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell. Garrett and Terrell, both adept playmakers and scorers themselves, are also terrific at knowing their roles, a skill that shouldn’t be undervalued.

Power forward Hassan Martin, second to Matthews in scoring at 11.4 points per game and the team’s leading rebounder with 7.7 boards per contest, is the perfect complement to the guard play, a force inside who also blocked 103 shots last season.

The guy everyone is talking about, though, is Kuran Iverson. A cousin of Allen Iverson, the forward is just as mystifying at times. A former top-30 recruit, he transferred from Memphis after butting heads -- and using Twitter to vent his frustration -- with coach Josh Pastner. Often players who transfer after wearing out their welcome elsewhere recognize the need to shape up. If Iverson, who was granted immediate eligibility recently, toes the line, he will be a huge addition for Rhode Island.

Hurley also has added graduate transfer Four McGlynn from Towson. A terrific shooter, McGlynn led his team last season, averaging 12 points per game and shooting 37 percent from the 3-point arc and 92 percent from the free-throw line.

The Rams will have more than enough depth, too, with Earl Watson and freshmen Nikola Akele, Andre Berry and Leroy Butts at the forward spot, plus freshman Christion Thompson who can add even more to the heavy guard rotation.

Of course, expectation is a funny thing. Not everyone thrown into its glare for the first time in a long time handles it well.

Handling the weight of a fan base that has been in a holding pattern for more than a decade and of a basketball world that will be eyeing up the Rams more critically could be Rhode Island’s biggest challenge.

At least in Hurley, son of one legendary coach and brother of a legendary player, the Rams have a guy who knows a thing or two about pressure.

Yet another reason why Rhode Island’s biggest offseason acquisition was a guy nearly 20 years removed from his college playing days.