It’s a big year for the Big East and a bigger year for Providence College basketball. The Big East that was born in a back room in 1979 and took the college basketball world by storm is now gone. As greed and pigskin started to lure away Big East stalwarts, the basketball only schools (Providence, Seton Hall, Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, DePaul & Marquette) decided to cut bait, break free and land a preemptive strike. This was their best chance to escape as Temple was set to become a full member and that would have swung the power balance in the favor of the football programs. With time ticking away, the so-called “Catholic 7” took off, lifted the Big East name, Madison Square Garden and inked a multi-million dollar TV deal with the brand new Fox Sports Channel. Along the way, they picked up solid hoops programs Creighton, Xavier and Butler. The new Big East kickstarts this fall and there are a handful of teams looking to compete for the league crown.
Anybody that knows me knows I have a deep rooting interest in the health and future of Big East hoops and specifically the Providence Friars. Growing up in Rhode Island, our local pro sports teams all play in other states. College hoops is all we have to call our own, well outside of AAA baseball anyway. While I did not attend Providence (I was accepted though!) they have been my adopted team since the early 90s. After a smattering of success and tournament berths, the program has been bereft of postseason victories since 1997 outside of one lone NIT victory in 2003. As the Tim Welsh years wound down, the program quickly begin circling the Big East bowl and things looked a bit bleak. When Welsh was fired in 2008, the Friars turned to Coach of the Year Keno Davis from Drake. The son of a successful and admired coach, Keno took the cash and came to Providence but he was not their first choice. After being rebuffed by their first set of options, PC decided on Keno but many fans and pundits questioned the move, unsure if he had enough experience at that level or if he could handle swimming in the deep end of the sport’s toughest conference. He sank. Outside of an inspired home victory over #1 Pittsburgh in his first season and a lone NIT berth (a dismal one and done loss to Miami at home), Keno’s run was a disaster with more interesting news generated off the court than on it. After three years of disappointing teams and more assault charges than playoff wins under his belt, Keno was shown the door despite being owed a decent sum of money. With a frustrated fanbase and sagging ticket sales, athletic director Bob Driscoll needed to smack a home run to save his job. Driscoll acted quickly, turning to Providence born Ed Cooley, who was in the middle of a solid run at Fairfield University.
Cooley sprinted home and vowed that he was not using PC as a stepping-stone, but rather he was settling in at his dream job. Cooley was the perfect fit, a strong voice, a young coach looking to rebuild a program in his image, a hometown boy and someone that could connect with his players. Cooley immediately cleaned up the program, knocking out the deadwood and troublemakers and making the team focus on character, defense and running. After the Keno street ball and domestic assault era, this was a refreshing development. In his first year at the school, Cooley matched Keno’s record from the year before, but it was clear things were turning around due to a highly touted recruiting class that ranked top five in the nation (per ESPN). Year Two saw more growth and PC was actually on the verge of the bubble right down to the end, something that seemed unthinkable in December when Vincent Council went down to injury and the team was struggling to find its identity. They would earn an NIT berth and picked up their first postseason wins in a decade, reinvigorating the fanbase that had been desperate for a winner. Even more impressive is that Cooley coaxed this success out of a team that saw their senior leader miss half the season to injury (Council), their top rated recruit deemed ineligible for the season (Ricardo Ledo) and their second highest rated recruit miss time with a shoulder injury (Dunn). Cooley kept plugging along, benefiting from career years out of Kadeem Batts and Bryce Cotton, the Big East scoring leader.
The evolution of the program continued into the offseason as Cooley landed another prized Top 50 recruit, Jalen Lindsey out of Tennessee. The change happened in a flash but the Friars went from the “hope for a miracle” recruiting position to being included in the “heavy consideration” or “finalist” category for a majority of top high schoolers. As the program garners more postseason success in coming years, the floodgates are expected to open even further.
So here we are, heading into Year Three. Despite losing Ledo to the NBA, Cooley is returning a pretty stacked team thanks to development and recruiting. While Georgetown, Marquette and Butler look to be the cream of the conference, many expect PC to be in the top half of the league and lock up their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2004. Expectations are high in Providence but all signs point to Cooley being well equipped to handle the pressure.
This past July, I re-upped my season tickets for the seventh year. As the season kicks off in November, I am going to make this a regular column that follows my experiences watching the development of the refreshed Big East and the rebirth of the Providence Friars live from Section 103. I hope you enjoyed the summer, and now that fall has arrived, please join me for the ride.