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Much Better Than Expected

Tuesday, March 05, 2013


Who would have thunk it?

Back in October, who could have imagined the type of success our local division one men’s basketball teams would have on the hardwood?

Let me refresh your memories. When the preseason polls were released in the Big East, Atlantic Ivy League and Northeast conferences, none were very kind to our local quartet.

The Providence Friars were picked to finish last in the 15-team Big East Conference. URI was also tabbed for 15th in the 16-team Atlantic Ten. Brown was selected as the 7th best team in the Ancient Eight while Bryant received the most love in the preseason polls. The Bulldogs were picked to finish 10th out of 12 teams in the NEC.

Now let’s take a look at where those teams are.

Rhode Island has had the most difficult time picking up wins in conference play. The Rams are currently (8-19) overall and (3-11) in the A-10. However, despite being in 14th place, the Rams have played virtually everyone tough and are the only team in the conference to beat the A-10 leading Billikens in St. Louis this season.

Rhody clearly lacks the talent to compete at the top of the Atlantic Ten. Outside of Xavier Munford, head coach Dan Hurley has no one who can score on a consistent basis. That will change next year with the combination of transfers and recruits that are slated to join the program.

Still, Hurley’s team plays hard every night and, despite the lack of offensive ability, the defensive effort is almost always there. Ram fans are excited about the future which begins with the 2013-2014 season.

Like URI, the Brown Bears made a coaching change prior to the season because the program was down. The Bears finished last season at (8-23) overall and (2-12) which was one win better than (1-13) Dartmouth in the Ivy League standings.

Enter Mike Martin.

The former Bear (class of 2004) was a member of the only class in Brown basketball history to have four consecutive winning seasons on College Hill.

Martin inherited some players with talent, but not nearly enough. The Bears have been playing with a total of 9 players in uniform this season, two of which have been severely hampered by back issues.

That lack of depth has made life difficult to practice on a daily basis where assistant coached TJ Sorrentine, Dwayne Pina and Kevin Snyder have all had to suit up and practice with the team so that they could do some 5-on-5 drills.

As most good leaders would do, Martin hasn’t complained about that lack of depth, instead doing his best to manage his players as best he can.

To date, the team is (12-14) overall and (6-6) in conference play. They are currently in third place behind only preseason favorites Princeton and Harvard.

Brown has also had some high quality wins beating Providence College and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference leader Niagara.

Martin’s players have bought into what he is selling lock, stock and barrel which has certainly helped matters. And it’s a good thing, because the man clearly knows what he is doing.

Nowhere was that more evident than at the end of Brown’s win Saturday night at Columbia where Martin called a timeout with 1.1 second remaining and diagrammed a perfect play.

His players executed it to perfection resulting in a Tucker Halpern game-winning three at the buzzer.

It’s crazy to even think that the Bears head into their final weekend of play with a chance to finish .500 overall and have a winning record in the league should they sweep Penn and Princeton at home.

Martin and his staff are also putting together a solid recruiting class meaning the future looks bright at Brown.

On Smith Hill, the Providence Friars were like a volatile stock this season. They started low, went surprisingly high, hit rock bottom and have surged back upward.

Picked to finish last, expectations were low heading into this season, particularly after it was learned that the NCAA ruled against Ricky Ledo.

But a strange thing happed to PC. Despite losing Vincent Council to injury in the first game and having only 6-7 scholarship players in uniform on any given night, the Friars had a very strong showing in the first semester racking up an (8-2) record which could have easily been (10-0). Their only two losses came in Puerto Rico where they lost to UMass at the buzzer and Penn State in overtime.

That surprising start along with the return of Council and the addition of Kris Dunn and Sidiki Johnson had many wondering if PC might be a year ahead of schedule and possibly compete in the upper half of the Big East.

Then came a 5-game losing streak which included losses to Boston College, Brown and DePaul. Bubble burst!

In retrospect, Ed Cooley says he probably would have worked those players into the mix more slowly so as not to disrupt what was a very good chemistry with his team.

But who could blame him?

Had he not played Council, Dunn and Johnson, Cooley would have been questioned by anyone and everyone in Rhode Island. He did what every other coach in his situation would have done.

Then, after those high expectations turned to no expectations, the team started to jell.

Council started to resemble his old self, Sidiki Johnson’s departure seemed like addition by subtraction and the Friar have been on a roll ever since.

At (6-1) Providence has the best record in the second half of conference play of any Big East team. With regular season games against Seton Hall and UConn still on tap, it is not out of the question for the Friars to finish (9-7) or (8-8) in the Big East heading to the Big East Tournament.

Should they win those two games and their opening game in the BE Tourney, the Friars would be smack dab in the middle of the conversation for a spot in the field of 68.

Even if they were to split with Seton Hall and UConn and win that tourney opener at Madison Square Garden, PC will still receive consideration for the Big Dance.

This is an amazing accomplishment for a team that has had to deal with what the Friars have had to deal with this year. It prompted St’ John’s coach Steve Lavin to proclaim that Cooley should be Coach of the Year in the Big East.

While Georgetown’s John Thompson III will likely win that award, one could argue that Cooley might be more deserving.

Even if the Friars don’t make it to the NCAA Tournament, any type of postseason play would be extremely beneficial for this program.

And when you look at the players (Carson Desrosiers, Tyler Harris, Ricky Ledo) who are waiting in the wings to join next year’s recruiting class at PC, the future is extremely bright for Providence College.

And then there’s the Bryant Bulldogs.

After going (2-28) last season, the Bulldogs have engineered the greatest turnaround in division one men’s college basketball.

Like Pat Skerry’s Towson Tigers, Tim O’Shea’s Bulldogs added 17 more victories to their win total this year – their first year of full eligibility in division one.

Bryant led the NEC standings for most of the season before settling for a second place tie at (12-6). They will host Mount St. Mary’s Wednesday night (7pm) in opening round action of the NEC Tournament.

What should give fans of PC and URI much hope is that Bryant engineered this great turnaround with pretty much the same team from last year with the exception of two talented transfers (Dyami Starks, Joe O’Shea) who joined the mix.

Regardless of whether or not the Bulldogs win the NEC Tournament and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it, Bryant (19-10) will be playing postseason basketball in their first year of eligibility at the D-1 level. That, in itself, is amazing!

So while the future remains very bright for all four of our local D-1 programs, we can also take solace in the fact that the present isn’t too bad either. In fact, it’s been pretty darn good!


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