PITTSBURGH – As he climbed the ladder, a hearty cheer filled the Ryan Center while T.J. Buchanan cut off his piece of the net just moments after Rhode Island clinched its first outright regular-season Atlantic 10 title.
Always a crowd favorite during his four-year playing career with the Rams, Buchanan remains a popular figure in the Rhode Island community. Now in his first season as Dan Hurley's director of player development, Buchanan serves a key behind-the-scenes role with the very program he helped lay the foundation for.
"That was a feeling I have never had before; it was great," Buchanan said about getting to cut a piece of the net after Rhody's title-clinching win over Dayton on Feb. 23. "Even though I wasn't on the court as a player, climbing up on that ladder felt like a lot of hard work had paid off."
Thursday, Buchanan will be on the Rhode Island bench when the Rams open the day's NCAA Tournament action against Oklahoma, and it will be a far cry from the first Hurley team he was a part of. During his sophomore season in 2012-13, Buchanan and URI struggled to an 8-21 mark. One year earlier, he had arrived in Kingston as part of a heralded freshman class that also included Mike Powell, Dominique McKoy, Rayvon Harris and Jonathan Holton. By the time he was a senior, he was the only member of the class still on the roster.
Buchanan bought in immediately to the culture that was being established. He was the sixth man that first season under Hurley, playing alongside instant star Xavier Munford. The following year, Buchanan provided veteran leadership for program elevators E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin.
As the team struggled through that 2012-13 season, Buchanan had the maturity to see the forest through the trees.
"Even in that first year, I knew he was building something special, and I wanted to be a part of it," Buchanan said. "When he first got here, I could tell he was doing something with the program that was going to be successful in the long term.
"In those first couple seasons, we were the foundation of this success. To see the accolades keep stacking up for these guys now, it's amazing. Not a lot of people get to experience what we are going through right now, and it's something I'll never take for granted."
Hurley saw something in Buchanan's ability to provide mentorship. When the Kalamazoo, Mich. native finished his career, he was offered the chance to stay with the Rams as a graduate assistant. He turned it down, opting to spend time with his family while also coaching at the high school level.
He spent three seasons as an assistant coach for Kalamazoo Central, helping the team win back-to-back Class A Southwest Michigan District championships in 2015-16 and 2016-17. The team also was the 2016-17 Class A Southwest Regional champion. All five seniors from the 2016-17 squad moved on to play collegiate basketball.
"When I was here as a player, I knew I wanted to get into coaching," Buchanan said. "I had an opportunity to come back right away, but I wasn't ready. I wasn't mentally focused on basketball and I needed to step away from the game, be with my family for a little bit.
"The time away helped me a lot. I learned a lot of things about dealing with the players while I was coaching at the high school level."
This past September, the timing finally felt right for Buchanan to return to his adopted home. Now in Kingston as director of player development on Hurley's staff, he is enjoying being back in the mentorship role, working in various roles with URI's players - all of whom he has known since they arrived.
"I catch myself smirking a little bit sometimes, watching these guys and seeing them lead by example the way that they do," Buchanan said. "When Jared Terrell got on campus, we couldn't get him to say a word. Now we can't get him to shut up. It's pretty special to be able to see these guys develop over time and grow into young men who are going to be successful in life."