SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – Thursday night was everything you could want in a rivalry game. The atmosphere was what you would expect with a packed Ryan Center. The game was close throughout, with some swings for both teams although one had the lead more often than the other. It was a slug fest, and at one point things got heated, including between the coaches. It came right down to the buzzer.
And in some ways, Providence’s 50-49 win over Rhode Island, their fourth straight in this rivalry, will define the two teams going forward as well.
Providence struggled on offense, and while some of it was because of Rhode Island’s defense, that wasn’t all. The Friars shot 37.5 percent from the field, including 5-17 from long range. Bryce Cotton was quiet for long stretches, though he led them with a game-high 15 points on 5-15 shooting. They had to gut this one out with their defensive effort and doing just a bit more, and the feeling after it reflected how close this was.
“My whole locker room felt relieved,” said head coach Ed Cooley.
This is probably what the Friars will look like from a personnel standpoint the rest of the way. Kris Dunn was out again and is thought to be done for the season, as he had a setback with his shoulder. Freshmen Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock remain suspended, and the longer they are out, the longer one has to think this could be a season-long suspension or such that their return may not help much because when they return it will be so late in the season that inserting one or both into the lineup will be more disruptive.
Without Dunn, Cotton has to play the point. That means he can’t get the same shots as when he plays off the ball, it means his first job is to involve others, and the Friars have to play differently at both ends. They will miss Dunn’s length and defensive ability. And it means the burden on Cotton will be huge, although he won’t complain about it and hasn’t thus far.
“Cotton may lead the world in minutes played – the world, not the league,” said Cooley.
The good thing is that the Friars now have a long break to try to figure this out. Their next game is against Yale on December 17 after final exams. Cooley mused about how he hasn’t been able to coach the team he and his staff recruited, as well as how they have to change how they play permanently as regards this season.
“For seven weeks, we prepared to play a particular style, and in one day that style had to change,” said Cooley. “I have to do a better job of making other adjustments to give us better offensive efficiency.”
Rhode Island, on the other hand, showed a lot of what you could expect this season. The long and short was encapsulated in the protagonist on the final shot, talented freshman E.C. Matthews. Matthews showed how good he could be at times, including when he tied the game late, but he was also 4-15 from the field on the evening. He drew lots of praise from Cooley, and his head coach had to console him after he came up short on the last shot.
“Anytime a player apologizes to his coaches after the game for letting his team down, you have a special person, especially in this environment of basketball that we live in,” said URI head coach Dan Hurley. “He’s an awesome kid, we’re so lucky to have him in this program.”
Rhode Island wasn’t much better offensively, shooting just under 39 percent from the field, including 1-7 from long range. They had a 38-26 edge in points in the paint, but couldn’t translate that into a win. Hurley saw a lot to be hopeful about, and said the result was the only disappointment.
What this game showed is that Rhode Island will have games where they look like a team on the rise, and games where they will look like a team that has a ways to go. It’s understandable; while the talent base is better than a year ago, there are many moving parts. As Hurley noted, the only Ram who took the floor last night who played for former head coach Jim Baron was backup guard T.J. Buchanan. (Mike Powell was suspended for a violation of team rules, and he could sit longer than just this game.)
“I just think that we have a lot of upside,” said Hurley, who said he sees some similarities to when he knew Wagner, his prior program, had turned a corner. “We have a lot of new pieces, moving parts, but we will get chemistry and get a flow. I think we will get better as the year will go on, which is I think all you could ask of what we’re doing here with this program right now.”
It was fitting that Providence and Rhode Island had a slug fest that came down to the end. Rivalry games are supposed to be that way. What might not have been expected before the season is that what each team showed is what you can probably expect to see the rest of the way given their personnel.