With the release of the Associated Press Top 25 Poll on Monday, Providence is back in the top 10 for the first time in a long, long time.
With the exception of a No. 6 ranking in the postseason coaches’ poll after their 1987 Final Four appearance, it had been four decades since the Friars made an appearance in the top 10 in the national polls. After Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes but before the Big East, Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino, the legendary Dave Gavitt led Providence to a 17-1 start in 1977-78, and the apex was a No. 9 national ranking Jan. 24, 1978.
Just as was the case nearly 38 years ago, PC’s first game as a top-10 team came against Massachusetts. Unlike a 50-49 squeaker in 1978, this year’s Friars had no trouble with the Minutemen last night, going on the road and thoroughly thumping UMass 90-66.
Ben Bentil scored a career-high 32 points and yanked down 12 rebounds, while Kris Dunn returned from sickness and notched 14 points and 11 assists with six rebounds as well. It speaks to just how good Dunn is that such numbers almost draw a ho-hum.
It also speaks to just how good the Friars are right now that they so quickly dismissed what certainly could’ve been a scary opponent. Dunn’s absence in part resulted in closer-than-expected home wins over Bryant and Rider in the last week-plus, and the road trip against a motivated regional opponent just a few days before Christmas had all the makings of a trap game.
Providence will be challenged to stay in the top 10 in the long-term, but that’s as much a testament to the strength of their conference as saying anything about the Friars. The Big East, that conference all but left for dead a couple years ago after being poached by other leagues, is having another superb non-conference showing and has three teams in the top 10 this week and four in the top 17. The conference’s tough double round-robin schedule will almost certainly tag each team with some losses that cost them in the polls at some point.
Nevertheless, the Friars’ performance Monday night should open eyes. Winning at Massachusetts was not a surprise; leading by 18 points midway through the first half and by as many as 25 in the second half was a statement.
It’s hard enough to win on the road in college basketball, period. To do so with such authority is something even the best teams rarely do. Such results are the sign of a team with some supreme talents-of which it goes without saying Dunn and Bentil are-and also one that could get comfortable with its lofty ranking.
- Another story from Monday night was the continued maturation of Grand Canyon as an NCAA Division I program. The Antelopes defeated Houston 78-69 in the Global Sports Classic in Las Vegas, backing up their win at San Diego State just three nights earlier. Dan Majerle is building a good program at the Arizona school, which is not eligible for the NCAA Tournament for another two years.
- Grand Canyon will now face Marshall in the championship game of that event after the Thundering Herd defeated Wyoming 90-82 behind the performance of the night from James Kelly. The senior forward, a transfer from Miami (Fla.), piled up 38 points and 13 rebounds for Marshall.
- Oregon continues to find ways to win close games, as the Ducks defeated Alabama 72-68 in Birmingham.
- Ranked teams in action included West Virginia bouncing Eastern Kentucky 84-59 on the strength of a 50-22 halftime lead and North Carolina handling Appalachian State 94-70 behind another excellent performance by Brice Johnson (22 points).
- The West Coast Conference opened league play, and Gonzaga made a statement with a 99-73 blowout of conference contender Pepperdine. The Bulldogs did it by shooting 55.2% and draining 16 three-pointers. Most notable is that Kyle Wiltjer scored just nine points, but Josh Perkins, Eric McClellan and Silas Melson combined for 44 points. Among the other WCC teams winning openers all at home were Saint Mary’s (74-52 over San Francisco), Portland (a surprisingly easy 87-60 blowout of Loyola Marymount) and Pacific, a team that has had all sorts of bad news this year but got some much-needed good with a 73-72 overtime win over Santa Clara on a buzzer-beater by Alec Kobre:
- One of the few true four-team in-season tournaments remaining is the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational hosted by Texas-El Paso. The host school was the victim of a surprise, as Norfolk State stopped UTEP 85-76. The Spartans now will face UC Irvine for the championship on Tuesday after the Anteaters defeated Sam Houston State 63-53.
- Northwestern is now 10-1 after a 103-67 blowout of Sacred Heart. We’ll soon get a better measure on the Wildcats, whose best win still is probably either Missouri or Columbia. Yikes.
- It may be impossible to be a quieter 11-2 than Southern Illinois, but Barry Hinson’s Salukis are just that after a 65-52 win at Saint Louis. The schedule also has not been that tough, but there have been four road wins now and SIU is just one win from tying its win total for all of last year.
- The big news off the court Monday was the announcement that Michigan State star Denzel Valentine will miss 2-3 weeks due to minor knee surgery after an injury in practice Sunday night. Valentine is undoubtedly a frontrunner for national player of the year honors with averages of 18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game. Assuming he returns within that timeframe and not before-as seems to happen fairly often with many of these time estimates-he’ll miss a game with Oakland tonight, road games at Iowa and Minnesota and perhaps a home game with Illinois Jan. 7.
Today’s menu: Almost feels like a Saturday with how many teams are hustling to get in games before the holidays, many of them during the day (and after posting this we see CBSSports.com’s Jon Rothstein says the same thing)
- Top-ranked Michigan State will get a serious test in its first game without Valentine as it faces Kahlil Felder and Oakland (7 p.m., ESPNU). The Golden Grizzlies certainly have the scoring threats to push the Spartans.
- Coming off its first loss, Iowa State has a tough assignment when it travels to Cincinnati (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2).
- Vanderbilt is still looking for a real signature non-conference win, but the Commodores can certainly get it if they win at Purdue (8 p.m., Big Ten Network).
- Like Vandy, California is a team that was highly touted early but has fallen out of the rankings, but the Golden Bears will be back in them if they can win at Virginia (9 p.m., ESPN2).
- Arkansas-Little Rock puts its undefeated record on the line with perhaps its toughest game yet when it travels to surprising Texas Tech.
- Stephen F. Austin has been quiet since a blowout loss early at Baylor, but the Lumberjacks have won seven of eight and can make some noise if they can win at Arizona State.
- George Washington should win at DePaul (9 p.m., FS1), but the Colonials had best be on their behavior lest they become victim of a pre-Christmas surprise.
- Fresh of its upset of Kentucky, we’ll see how Ohio State handles prosperity when it hosts a Mercer (9 p.m., ESPNU) team that itself is coming off a win at Arkansas.
- The Diamond Head Classic begins in Hawaii, and all four quarterfinals are intriguing. Auburn and New Mexico (2:30 p.m., ESPNU) open things, and the winner takes on the victor between BYU and Harvard (5 p.m., ESPNU). One of those four teams is going to get a nice boost into conference play just by advancing to the final. The other side of the bracket has Oklahoma with a tricky game against Washington State (11 p.m., ESPNU) and the night concludes with Northern Iowa drawing a tough matchup against host Hawaii (1:30 a.m., ESPNU).
- Finally, San Diego State has been a major disappointment to many early, but the Aztecs can turn that around if they can beat Kansas at home (11 p.m., CBSSN).
Enjoy your Tuesday.