SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – While it’s always been one to watch if you’re a New Englander, the annual meeting between Providence and Rhode Island is one that has ebbed and flowed a bit. For a few years when the Rams struggled over a decade ago, it wasn’t as big a game. But as both teams have been better of late, especially this season, the game has been bigger and better. And with apologies to Providence head coach Ed Cooley, it’s a rivalry game, one that on Saturday night delivered everything you could want unless you were a Rhode Island fan.
And it’s a game that will be a little more memorable when we see these teams later in the season.
Before the season, the Rams were generally thought to be more of a contender in their conference (Atlantic 10) than the Friars in theirs (Big East). Rhode Island entered this season clearly trending up, fresh off a year of immense growth in so many ways, and then Memphis transfer Kuran Iverson was declared eligible immediately. Providence, on the other hand, entered with some questions about how the support cast for Kris Dunn would shape up.
The results to date? Rhode Island suffered a major blow on opening night when E.C. Matthews tore his ACL, but there’s every reason to believe it’s far from a fatal blow. Providence, meanwhile, is seeing the support cast fill in around Dunn already, to the point where they beat Arizona and gave Michigan State all they could handle in the Wooden Legacy.
And it was part of that supporting cast that ripped the hearts of Rhode Island fans right out at the buzzer.
Providence isn’t lacking talent, but how it would come together wasn’t easy to figure. Now, though, it seems clear: Ben Bentil, who tipped in a miss by Dunn just before the buzzer (replay showed there was about 0.2 left) to cap a 23-point, eight-rebound night, is the primary complement, and emerging as someone who could contend for All-Big East honors. Rodney Bullock has helped and should only get better, because we have to remember that he’s shaking off two years of rust between a suspension and an ACL injury. Freshman Ryan Fazekas is a serious three-point threat. Junior Lomomba is emerging as the consummate role player. Jalen Lindsey is plenty talented, though that hasn’t translated just yet.
The end result is a Providence team that is 8-1, including a 3-1 mark away from the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. That’s a good place to be in early December, and with just one more true road game (a trip to UMass) on tap before Big East play. The Friars could be 12-1 when they travel to Butler on New Year’s Eve to open conference play. The Friars turn the ball over less than ten times a game while forcing nearly 16, helping them win despite being out-rebounded on the season.
Rhode Island, meanwhile, has had players fill in with Matthews done for the season. They have become a more balanced team in the scoring department, with five players averaging between 10.5 and 11.6 points per game. There’s enough talent that several players are capable of larger offensive roles on this team, and that includes Iverson taking on a more prominent role than perhaps was first expected, though he’s always had the talent to be a star. Hassan Martin has grown tremendously since he first arrived in South Kingston, while Jarvis Garrett figured to be a very important piece.
Garrett, in particular, showed why this team is in great shape despite the loss of Matthews. He was the big reason the Rams battled back after Providence controlled Saturday night’s game early, between how he ran the show, made shots and was in a lot of plays. He scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds, both career highs, and has a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio on the season. As he continues to grow, so should this team.
Not having Matthews will probably hurt in spots, because basketball is a tough game to win without a go-to guy, but the early returns suggest the Rams aren’t going to fall flat. They are 5-3, with no bad losses although two have come at home (Valparaiso is not a bad loss, even if it is a team an Atlantic 10 contender should beat at home), and have more opportunities ahead. They have three true road non-conference games left, and although it’s not clear any will provide resume-building win opportunities, wins at Nebraska or Old Dominion would help. They likely will need to get big wins in the Atlantic 10, which they should be capable of.
Providence should get better as the support cast around Dunn continues to emerge, as there is plenty of room for players to grow. Dunn has also shown that he understands it’s up to him to take control when the game is on the line; he did it against Arizona to carry them despite foul trouble, and he did on Saturday night, even battling adversity with a couple of missed dunks a little earlier in the game. In addition, the Big East right now looks wide open after Villanova; Providence is as good a pick to be right in the mix as anyone else based on the first few weeks of play.
Rhode Island should likewise get better with their balance. Martin is continuing to emerge and should be in the discussion for first team All-Atlantic 10 honors. Iverson has always been a talent and is now back close to home. Garrett is growing and is a big barometer of this team’s results.
When March rolls around, both teams will be better than they were now. This win will be a bigger one for Providence than it appears to be right now. And this game will be one to look at even more, because it was a classic between two teams that showed their ceiling was not close to where they were at the time.