KINGSTON, R.I. -- It has been a long time since Rhode Island basketball has mattered, and just as long since it has had a player worthy of an NBA draft pick. The Rams haven't made an NCAA Tournament since TLC's No Scrubs was dominating the charts. That was 1999. Lamar Odom (yes, young'uns, that Lamar Odom played for URI, of all teams) was on that squad after returning to school following the Rams' charmed Elite Eight run in '98.
Finally, a generation later, Rhode Island basketball is on the precipice of prominence again. We at CBS Sports peg this year's Rams at the top of the Atlantic 10. Thanks to one of the best big men to wear a Rams uniform since Odom, Dan Hurley's team is set up to be among the best in the nation that most college fans right now don't know nearly enough about.
"Coming into this year, it’s almost like we have to win," junior star E.C. Matthews said. "Nobody’s gonna put enough pressure on us the way we do ourselves. We are younger but at the same time more talented than last year. ... With me and Hassy a year older, a year better, it’s going to be really scary if we find our identity."
"Hassy" is Hassan Martin, Matthews' best friend on the team and fellow junior. College hoops honks know a big part of the Rams' impending success is on Matthews, a projected NBA pick, but in reality Martin is just as big a factor, a guy who is one of the most underrated players in the country and could also easily turn himself into an NBA pick this season.
Despite not playing on an NCAA Tournament team the past two seasons, and not being offensive option one, two or three in his first two years at URI, Martin has emerged as an NBA prospect. Hurley is getting more inquiries, more scouts at URI practices, and it's no longer just for Matthews. (Truth be told, the Rams have a number of guys who will get NBA looks; Memphis transfer Kuran Iverson being another.)
As for Martin, this is all totally surprising, given he's only played four seasons of organized basketball. But one hand feeds the other here. Because he is this good this fast, and because he continues to get better by the month, scouts project his ceiling to be higher at this point of his college career than most players.
"Humble but very, very quietly confident," Hurley said. "He carries himself without ego. He knows he's good but doesn't throw it in people's faces. He leads but he's not a phony."
Martin, still just 19 (he'll turn 20 on Nov. 22), continues to grow -- literally. He added an inch to his height after arriving at URI, and midway through last season his shoe size increased to a 16. He is almost certainly among the five best defenders in college basketball. Martin averaged 11.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks for the Rams last season.
"Once we’re on the court, it’s real natural," Matthews said. "I want so much for myself, the next person would be Has. The monster season he had, I was so happy for him. It was like me having that success."
Just the second player in program history to swat more than 100 balls in back-to-back seasons, Martin is also the third-leading shot-blocker returning to college hoops this season, yet he's still an unknown -- for now. Checking in at No. 91 on our list of the top 100 (and one) players in the sport, Martin is only just now starting to receive some recognition for his game-altering ability. He snaps off the floor, has touch around the basket and boasts a 38-inch vertical leap but adds, "I feel like it’s so much higher in the game. It’s adrenaline.”
It's why, despite standing at 6-foot-7, he appears to play like he's 6-11. The 240-pound Martin said his wingspan has been measured at 7-2. He's put on more than 25 pounds of muscle since getting to campus. And he's a lefty, which makes him all the more enticing.
Then there are his hands. These things could palm 20-pound bowling balls. From the base of his palm ot the tip of his middle finger, they measure 10.5 inches. That makes Martin's meathooks longer than Kawhi Leonard's famous paws.
Martin is also one of a few players at the college level who can truly guard every position, and he'll likely be asked to do that a few times by Hurley as the season goes on. It's not just defense; Martin's touch around the rim is undeniable. He led the A-10 in field goal percentage last season (60.3 percent from 2-point range), and now his mid-range shot is coming into form.
"Hassy is having good perimeter skills away from having a chance to play in the NBA," Hurley said. "That's the big thing. He came to the game late. He's only been seriously playing the game four or five years."
Hurley and Martin seemed destined to team up. They were separated by less than three miles when the former was coaching at Wagner and the latter was a student at Staten Island's Curtis High School. Hurley sent an assistant to check out Martin at the team's first practice of the season during Martin's junior year. Martin promptly injured his hand. By the fourth game of that season, he had a dislocated tendon in his middle finger and a broken knuckle. Hurley's recruitment with Wagner basically ended there, and Martin said bubbling interest from a lot of local mid-major schools came to a halt.
Five months later, Hurley was hired at Rhode Island. He recruited Martin heavy, attending every one of his AAU games over the summer, recruiting him "like a No. 1 priority," Hurley said.
Rhode Island was the kid's first official visit, and on Sept. 22, 2012 -- the day a four-star prospect named E.C. Matthews committed to URI -- Martin was on campus. It wound up being one of the biggest days in the history of the program, and yet the Rams were still months removed from playing a game and coming off a 7-24 season. Martin would commit soon thereafter and bypass all other official visits to A-10, Big East and Big 12 schools.
"He's not frivolous," Hurley said. "He's very measured, and thoughtful."
Matthews and Martin would join forces and form an immediate bond.
"He’s like my best friend," Martin said. "It shows on the court how good the chemistry is. Me and E.C., we’ll never get into an argument. Mario and Luigi."
Martin -- or, Luigi -- was 17 when he got to campus and an extremely quiet guy. His confidence was relatively low in part because no one knew who he was. Matthews helped him defeat some shyness.
"On the court Hassy’s not shy but he’s quiet, but it’s a good quiet," Matthews said. "You see he’s a monster. When he talks or says something, everybody listens. Like, 'Hey, Hassy’s saying something.'"
The great dichotomy to Martin's game is how lethal and intimidating his presence is on the court, yet he's as loud as a mouse in person. He can bench press 100 more pounds now (280) than he could as a freshman -- when he nevertheless wound up making the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team, raw as a fawn but nimbly getting better by the month.
Martin is the third of seven -- yes, seven -- boys. The son of an EMT who works graveyard shifts and a very strict mother who kept him in line, Martin grew up in a four-bedroom apartment on the northern tip of Staten Island. Like in-state star Kris Dunn, his first sports love for most of his young life wasn't basketball -- it was football.
Martin grew up "hating" hoops, he said. He'd play in tournaments as a grade-schooler and tell his dad he didn't want to be a part of it. But the switch came in part because of his growth, but also because his two older brothers, Phil and Kareem, went on to play in college, the former at UC Riverside. Once the oldest brother found success in basketball, all the younger Martins soon wanted the same.
Martin gained interest from college football programs after he helped Curtis High win two football championships, playing as a wideout. He didn't play varsity basketball until he was a junior. After mostly playing organized football from the age of 6 to 16, basketball took over -- and fast.
"I feed off of defense. That’s where I get my energy from," Martin said. "My intensity comes from my defense. I feel like I always had that in me. From football, I was always a tough guy, and that carried over to basketball."
He didn't start playing basketball seriously until he was a sophomore, when he made the switch after growing four inches in less than a year. Now the shy beast from Staten Island who still doesn't have a driver's license has become a bona fide pro prospect.
Martin's personal goal is to average 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game this season. He thinks he can do it because Hurley has helped him trigger his "intensity switch." Anyone who watched Martin play last season could see that's evident -- but only in body language, not in the face.
"No matter what sport he played, every coach said he works hard," his father, Kareem, said. "He has the same demeanor. You can't tell if a play was bad or good. He's always the same."
As for Rhode Island's 17-year NCAA Tournament drought, Hurley said it's not a burden this group of kids deserve, but this team absolutely has the dynamics and talent to finally break through. On Tuesday, Martin was named to the Atlantic 10's preseason all-league First Team, in addition to Matthews.
Every season, college basketball has one or two teams that rise from dormancy to relevancy, squads that make long-awaited charges at the NCAA Tournament and become really fun storylines along the way. Likewise every season, college basketball has one or two upperclassmen who ascend from local intrigue to national interest, players who totally break out but before were otherwise relative unknowns.
These inevitable annual revelations, uncovered eggs hatching to life, are part of what make college sports so fun. In both cases, Rhode Island meets the criteria for the season ahead. It's why they're among the most interesting teams in the sport and a group we rank as No. 34 entering the season. A season and slow-growing wave of hope has finally hit the Ocean State. Rhode Island, our smallest state, has its biggest basketball expectations in ages.