SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (AP) - Nearly seven years after Jim Baron inherited a ``decimated'' program at Rhode Island, things are looking up for the Rams and their coach.
In the two seasons before Baron was hired in spring 2001, Rhode Island had won just 12 games total and routinely endured double-digit losses. Soon after he arrived, the program took another hit when revelations of NCAA violations under the tenure of former coach Jim Harrick cost the team scholarships and recruiting visits.
``The program was decimated,'' Baron said. ``The mood, the attitude, the program, the lack of infrastructure - just a lot of facets of a runaway train.''
Those past woes make this season's success all the more startling.
No. 23 Rhode Island (14-1) is off to the program's best start since 1946-47 heading into conference play at 20th-ranked Dayton on Wednesday. The Rams cracked the national rankings for the first time since November 1998, and could climb in the polls following a 94-63 demolition of Fairleigh Dickinson on Wednesday that extended their winning streak to nine games and kept them undefeated at home this season.
Rhode Island and Dayton (12-1) have raised the profile of the Atlantic 10 conference, which last season sent just two schools to the NCAA tournament. The early success could bode well for the Rams to get their first NCAA bid in nine years.
``It's exciting,'' Baron said. ``It's a little bit unbelievable as far as how far we've taken this program.''
The Rams entered the season with lofty expectations after returning four starters, including senior forward Will Daniels, from a team that reached the conference tournament championship last March.
Daniels, a preseason all-conference pick who moved into 19th place on the Rams' career-scoring list, is averaging 18.3 points per game. Jimmy Baron, the coach's son who last year set a school single-season record with 97 3-pointers, has already hit 52 from long range this season with a per-game average of 15.7 points.
The bench has also contributed, with reserves accounting for 42 points in the win over FDU. The Rams have had five players finish in double figures in six different games.
``I joke with my teammates all the time about how this is the most fun I've had in all four years because we're winning,'' Daniels said.
Rhode Island last enjoyed success in the late 1990s under Harrick, who arrived in Kingston after guiding UCLA to the NCAA championship in 1995. The Rams reached the NCAA tournament in 1998, when they advanced to the Elite Eight, and again in 1999.
Harrick resigned to take the head coaching job at Georgia. He was replaced by Jerry DeGregorio, who won just 12 games in the two seasons before Baron arrived.
The losses were compounded when allegations of NCAA rule violations, committed during the tenures of Harrick and DeGregorio, surfaced in a lawsuit filed by a former athletic department secretary. The university self-reported to the NCAA a half-dozen violations, ranging from a men's basketball secretary typing papers for players' course assignments to improper recruiting inducements to unauthorized use of computers and phones in the men's basketball office.
In June 2004, under a plan approved by the NCAA, the university announced that it would reduce one scholarship for each of the next three years and cut the number of days when recruits are evaluated off-campus.
Baron speaks reluctantly of his early years at Rhode Island.
``I can't even articulate that because it's not going to help anybody,'' Baron said. ``It's done.''
Rhode Island has pummeled a series of lesser opponents, beating Florida Atlantic, Toledo, Northeastern and FDU by a combined 104 points. But while the Rams have some quality wins too - against Providence, Syracuse and UAB, for instance - their schedule gets harder in a hurry.
Dayton, the only other A-10 team currently ranked, routed then-No. 6 Pittsburgh to catapult into the rankings, but needed two overtimes to beat Akron on Wednesday night.
``We're up to the challenge,'' Daniels said. ``Obviously we're going to let our game speak for itself - us versus them.''
In his two decades as a head coach, Baron has a history of orchestrating turnabouts - albeit at lower-profile programs. He had dismal first seasons at Saint Francis and St. Bonaventure, but eventually led both to NCAA tournament berths. He has taken the Rams twice to the NIT, but has yet to reach the NCAA with them.
A veteran coach who preaches a ``one game at a time'' message, Baron says it's too early to start thinking about the postseason - especially with a competitive conference schedule looming.
``I'm not even worried about that right now,'' Baron said. ``I can't even think about it. It's so far off.''
Even so, he acknowledges being surprised by the team's success. Asked after Wednesday night's win what he would have said to anyone who suggested that the Rams would start 14-1, he said: ``I would have said, 'What are you drinking?'''

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