In the wild, wild west of college basketball scheduling amid a pandemic, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team continues to seize the moment.
Not only have the Rams avoided shutdowns due to positive COVID-19 tests, they’ve managed to slide into big opportunities that have presented themselves. Two weeks after switching into higher-level games to open the season, the Rams have added a trip to No. 13 Wisconsin this week. They’ll visit the Badgers Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.
“This is a strange year,” URI coach David Cox said. “We obviously lost the game we were supposed to play. Not scheduled to play again until next Sunday. We had been calling around to everybody and anybody trying to pick up a game, but we wanted the right game — meaning, we wanted to continue to challenge ourselves.”
Wisconsin certainly fits the bill. The Badgers shared the Big Ten regular-season title last year and have made the NCAA Tournament in 20 of the last 21 years. They are 3-1 this season, with their only loss coming by two points to Marquette on Friday.
They were originally scheduled to take on Louisville in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday. When the Cardinals hit pause for a positive COVID test, it opened up a spot on the schedule.
URI had already been looking for an additional game, having had last Friday’s game against Boston College canceled when the Eagles jumped into a matchup with Florida instead. The Rams weren’t scheduled to play again until Dec. 13, when they head to Western Kentucky.
“When the Louisville news hit us that they couldn’t play the game, we got in contact with Wisconsin,” Cox said. “They were receptive to it, and after negotiating for about 24 hours, they sent us a contract. We’re excited to get out there and test our mettle against not only the Big Ten co-champs from last year, but a perennial national power. We’re going to have to go out there and battle. Our margin for error will be very slim if we want to leave there with a win.”
Just securing the game is a victory in itself. It’s the kind of win-win situation that is often hard to come by for URI and its Atlantic-10 mates: a victory on the road against a Top 25 team is gold for an NCAA Tournament resume, while a loss doesn’t hurt much and can still have a positive impact on metrics. There’s a little more at risk on the other side.
URI typically pushes for home-and-home arrangements — like its setups with Seton Hall and Boston College — but was willing to take this matchup as a one-off, given the challenges of scheduling this season. A year ago, URI played at No. 7 Maryland. Before that, its most recent nonconference game on the home floor of a Top 25 team was in 2013 when it visited No. 5 Arizona.
“We’re not trying to win the conference or win the tournament or get ourselves in the tournament right now. We’re just trying to get better. And how do you get better? You play against really good competition,” Cox said. “They expose you, they expose some things and you work on them.”
The Rams will take a three-game win streak to Madison, which includes last week’s marquee win over Seton Hall. In scheduling discussions, the Rams have something to sell.
“When these games become available, it’s like a recruiting match,” Cox said. “You’ve got to put your best forward. First you’ve got to sell them on your pandemic protocols, that you’re not going to contaminate them. And then you’ve got to prove you’re a pretty good team.”
The addition gets URI’s schedule back to 25 games. The NCAA-mandated cap for this season is 27 games, so the Rams have flexibility to make more moves if they so choose. The Rams are set to begin conference play Dec. 18 against Davidson, though they do have 12 days off before their second A-10 matchup.
“If it makes sense, we’ll look to add one more,” Cox said. “But I think we’ve had a pretty strong nonconference schedule so far, and our conference schedule starts right around the corner with Davidson and St. Bonaventure. We might be OK after this one.”