The NIT might be dubbed the "Not Invited Tournament", the “Nobody's Interested Tournament", or the "National Insignificance Tournament" but none of that matters for this year's University of Rhode Island Rams’ team and their fans. For a third consecutive season the Rams had a dismal February, killing their hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth. But unlike the past two NIT tourney's this squad has played three entertaining games, playing their best ball of the season, earning a meeting with the North Carolina Tarheels in the semi finals.
After getting a taste of the Elite 8 in 1998, the Rams have struggled in the postseason. They haven't gotten past the second round of the National Invitation Tournament in their 4 chances since 2002 (including the past two years). Rhody nation thought, "here we go again… another one and done." But here we are, March 30th and Rhody is still alive. They will be playing tonight at 9:30 on national TV (ESPN 2), against one of the most successful college basketball programs ever. It is great national exposure for this program and it can only help in their future recruiting, playing in the NIT spotlight at M.S.G.
Their win last Wednesday at Virginia Tech was easily their best win of the year. The Hokies posted a 17-1 record at home this season, playing in the hard-nosed, tenacious ACC. According to Vegas, the Rams were 6-point underdogs heading into Cassell Coliseum. Rhody prevailed 79-72, due to an impressive, come from behind, second half surge. This sweet victory made Rhode Islanders forget about the devastating losses to St. Bonaventure and Umass that all but knocked them out of the NCAA's in late February, early March.
Playing in the smallest state, and in the middle-of-the-road Atlantic 10 conference, fans have an unrealistic sense of the reality of URI’s potential. Yes it's nice to get into the NCAA tourney every now in then. But what more can we ask of them? They're not - and never will - be a Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, UConn… college powerhouse. This current run is the best basketball the Runnin Rams have played since the Cuttino Mobley, Tyson Wheeler days.
URI is playing last year's national champs tonight at Madison Square Garden, one of the great Mecca's of basketball. Many Rams fans were calling for Jim Baron's head after his team's late season shenanigans, hoping he would get fired at the end of the year. Since Baron has arrived at Kingston in 2001, he has compiled 5 20+win seasons. There have been recent rumblings that St. Johns is interested in hiring the New York native. Maybe the Rhody faithful should be a little more careful what they wish for…