By ERIC RUEB
KINGSTON – Lost in the shuffle of the firing of Jim Baron and courting and eventual hiring of Dan Hurley was how returning members of the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team would react.
Wednesday, they showed how.
Every member eligible to return next season was in attendance Wednesday, as they walked into Keaney Gymnasium as a team and walked out hopeful of things to come.
“It’s tough to see coach Baron leave, but I’m also excited for the new coach staff and I feel we have a bright future with the core we have,” URI freshman guard Mike Powell said. “I’m excited to get back on the court and work out for next year.”
Also coming back next year is Billy Baron, who was in attendance Wednesday. Moments after Hurley finished speaking, television cameras raced over to the junior and other media followed in tow, forming a pack around Baron and all but forcing him to do an impromptu press conference about his future.
Baron – who at one point was pulled out of the pack by URI Sports Information Director Mike Laprey, only to tell Laprey he was OK with the interviews - answered every question and said he would be back playing for the Rams next fall.
There were also questions lingering about some of the underclassmen, namely the ones brought in by assistant coach Preston Murphy, whose future at URI still hangs in the balance.
Jonathan Holton – who made the Atlantic 10’s All Rookie Team for his breakout performance this season – was one of the first to show loyalty for Murphy following Baron’s firing, Tweeting “I’m with you @coach_PMurphy.”
Murphy hasn’t been officially rehired to join Hurley’s staff and will be given a chance to interview for the job, according to both Hurley and URI Director of Athletics Thorr Bjorn, but whether or not he stays may not affect the recruits he’s already brought in.
“I don’t think it will be a reason,” Holton said. “He brought me in, recruited me and stuff, but I think I might play it out. This is a great coaching staff and I’m trying to get to that next level.”
And Powell, who showed signs of becoming the next great point guard at URI after his strong freshman season, seemed excited to work with Hurley and, more notably, soon-to-be-named assistant coach Bobby Hurley, who played point guard and won a pair of NCAA Championships for Duke in 1991 and 1992.
“With the great past the coaching staff has and their father being the great Bob Hurley, it gives us a good beginning and an exciting beginning for the future,” Powell said. “I think he can help me get to the next level and help me achieve some of the goals I have for myself.”
Wednesday’s press conference was a cause for celebration, but the team wasn’t celebrating the morning of March 4 when Baron was fired.
Players were called to a team meeting and few were prepared for what was going to be said.
“I just got a phone call saying we’re having a team meeting and they announced the news coach Baron was getting fired,” Powell said. “I heard the rumors, but I wasn’t sure.”
“It was sad because I built a great relationship with coach Baron,” Holton said. “He was my first college coach and there was nothing but respect. … It was emotional when he got let go.”
The team wasn’t given day-to-day updates on the search or hiring process.
“We just promised them we’d have a new coach on board shortly,” Bjorn said. “… All we promised them was we’d go out and find a great coach.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Holton said. “I like Thorr and Thorr knew what he was doing. If it was just going to be anybody coming in I was going to be worried, but he brought in a great coaching staff.”
“I didn’t really know too much about the candidates I heard, so I just hoped the coach that came was about winning,” Powell said. “I want to win and make the tournament and things like that and I wanted the coach to have the same goals.”
With the rumors swirling starting late last week that Hurley was coming in, Holton and Powell – the Rams’ most epic Twitter members – went incognito online; Powell said it was because he was home during spring break. Holton admitted the Rams were told to take it easy.
“It was no Tweeting, no social media because it’s all a distraction,” he said. “It played out well.”
No one will find out how well everything plays out until next season, but for now, the two freshmen, the building blocks of the URI men’s basketball program, seemed excited.
“Our team was better than what our record displayed,” Powell said. “The talent on our team was good; we just couldn’t put it together all the time.”
“I’m happy. I just want to see new changes,” Holton said. “I’ve always been a winner and [Hurley] said we’re going to win, so I’m happy. I just want to get to that next level and make it to March Madness.”