Circumstance is an essential part of evaluation.
All one has to do to understand that is to look at the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team this season.
The Rams finished 8-21 overall (3-13 Atlantic 10) and of their 21 losses 15 were by single digits, yet this was a pretty good year for URI.
How could that be?
If Jim Baron had been brought back for this season in Kingston fans would likely be lining up outside the Ryan Center with torches and pitch forks.
Obviously that’s an exaggeration but the point is there nonetheless; after 11 years at the helm of the Rams it was
clearly time to move on from Baron.
In retrospect it might have been the best thing for Baron too as he and son Billy led Canisius College to its best season in over a decade this winter.
Once Dan Hurley took the job at URI this past summer it was clear he had his work ahead of him as the proverbial cupboard was left bare by Baron.
Only five players – sophomores Mike Powell, T.J. Buchanan and seniors Andre Malone, Nikola Malesevic and Ryan Brooks – had played for the Rams in the previous season.
Freshman Jordan Hare – who was recruited by Baron and assistant coach Preston Murphy – showed tremendous upside this season and could be an all-conference player by the end of his career if he reaches his potential.
Aside from that, Hurley had to go shopping to restock his roster.
As far as impacts this season went no player made a greater one than junior college transfer Xavier Munford, who played for Hurley in high school at St. Benedict’s Prep.
All Munford did was average 17.4 points per game and round himself into one of the best scorers in the A-10.
Hurley also added bruising 6-foot-8 freshman Mike Aaman and graduate student Alwayne Bigby, a consistent role player at Northeastern University prior to playing for URI.
Former URI coach Tom Penders said during the season finale against UMass that he thought Hurley got the most out of the talent he had on this year’s roster and it’s hard to disagree.
The Rams didn’t win a ton of games this season but they rarely rolled over either and more often than not gritted their way into competitiveness.
“That’s what we do every day in practice; we compete,” senior Andre Malone said. “We fight with each other, we win or we lose and it’s been real playing with coach.
“He taught me a lot, how to be a man outside of basketball and I really appreciated playing for coach.”
Throughout the season Hurley spoke of changing the culture of the program, clearly one too match his intense, never-give-up demeanor.
“There’s a lot of coaches around the country that coach undermanned teams who are consistently non-competitive,” Hurley said after the season finale against UMass. “I look at these guys who I got a chance to coach this year with great admiration.
“Against opponents that clearly had physical advantages – whether it size or skill at certain positions – I think it’s a positive that we showed the fight that we showed.
“I admire our guys for putting our program in a position this year to restore respect from opponents and pride in our program.”
For the most part he seems to have done that this season but step two in turning a program around is just as – if not more – challenging; attracting talent.
Being a great in-game strategist helps but it does little good if you can’t get the players with the talent to execute the system.
By most accounts, the talent Hurley has lined up for next season should be a significant upgrade.
Transfers Jarelle Reischel (Rice), DeShon Minnis (Texas Tech) and Gilvydas Biruta (Rutgers), as well as freshman Ifeanyi Onyekaba – who was a partial NCAA qualifier allowed to practice – by most accounts would have helped this season’s team tremendously.
All four players – along with heralded Michigan high schooler E.C. Mathews – will provide a vital talent upgrade next season and then it will be time to see what Hurley really can do.
This season the first-year coach did about as well as can be expected left with a depleted roster.
Once Hurley has a chance to recruit his players to fit his system then it will be a bit more obvious if he was the right choice to succeed Baron.