URI ready to cross state lines

We knew them better in the old days, back when The Big Game for UConn was in Keaney Gym, the little passion pit one state over. This was the old Yankee Conference, Sly Williams vs. Corny Thompson and gentlemanly coach Jack Kraft smoking his postgame pipe. We paid attention through Tyson Wheeler's four years, too, when the Rhody Rams came within an eyelash of the Final Four.

Otherwise, we inexplicably ignore URI, a plenty good basketball school that's a closer drive for many of us than Storrs and Hartford. Seriously. It's 40 minutes away, cheap tickets, beautiful on-campus arena and did we mention cheap tickets?

The Rams will cross state lines on Saturday and play a virtual home game at Mohegan Sun Arena against Oklahoma State, a game that ESPN's Andy Katz has already touted as a must watch. Rhody-Oklahoma State precedes Central Connecticut-Holy Cross, a homecoming game for Central coach Howie Dickenman of Norwich and Holy Cross guard R.J. Evans, a former NFA great.

Rhody, 10-1 after escaping Drexel with a one-point win Tuesday night, can enhance its NCAA tournament resume by adding a Big 12 school to its list of victims this season, joining the Big East (Providence) and ACC (Boston College). More than that, though, it's a chance for the Rams to expose their product to the people of southeastern Connecticut, which could (and should?) be part of its fan base.

"When I got here, I was thinking about the chance to reach into southeastern Connecticut," said athletic director Thorr Bjorn, who knows plenty about us already as a 1986 graduate of East Lyme High.

"I know the fan interest of sports in general is high," he said. "It's certainly UConn country. But in southeastern Connecticut, there's the chance to drive 30-40 minutes to see a great game. We're actually putting some of our marketing efforts into that area. We think Oklahoma State's appeal will help. If we can get some people to see our brand and our name, maybe we can get (prospective) students to start coming here, too."

Rhody has been a fun follow, always The Little Team That Could, back to the days of Penders, Garrick, Skinner and Wheeler. The Rams have already won the Rhode Island state championship, beating Providence. They dusted BC at Conte Forum. And this game on Saturday, given the teams' preference to run, run and run a little more, could be 154-152.

"Winning is the greatest marketing tool there is," Bjorn said. "What (coach) Jim Baron has done here is amazing. We're 17th in the RPI (according to cbssportsline.com). If we can continue to win, there's more student interest, more tickets sold, more sponsorship. We've seen that already. Our sponsorship was about $100,000 two years ago to $350,000 this year."

Bjorn worked with Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford in their days at UMass. They worked out an agreement where Rhody would play in a tournament involving Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and then get a return game here. They agreed on a neutral court, although Rhody plans to bring quite a few in blue.

There's even a pregame reception for the Connecticut Alumni Chapter in the Convention Center before the game.

"It's such a great venue," Bjorn said of Neon Uncasville. "Our fans are excited to come down, maybe grab dinner after the game and be a part of it. We'd like to try this every year."

Bjorn said he's talking to UMass about playing a doubleheader. Let us be the first to suggest Rhode Island-Boston College and Providence-UMass for next season.

Saturday is very much a UConn day in Connecticut. The men play The Lads Who Shoot 3-Pointers For The Pope (Notre Dame), the women are on TV at Seton Hall and the football team plays in the Papajohns.com Bowl in bodacious Birmingham. But that's why they invented TiVo. Southeastern Connecticut's unofficial new team is a-comin', live to Mohegan Sun.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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