Get those shovels ready – and get to your favorite college basketball game Sunday afternoon (Photo from the Blizzard of ’78)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
So what do you do when the Blizzard of 2022 rages outside your door, your Governor tells you to keep off the roads and Fox and ESPN offer non-stop college basketball?
You crack out the `ole Lenovo and knock out a few hoop musings. I probably should do this more often because in this day and age of quick takes – Hello Bunky! – video interviews, podcasts and mis-informed/late-to-the-party college basketball ‘analysis,’ it’s still fun to read something worthwhile. At least I believe it is.
So, first off, a history lesson. As the snow piles up, Providence fans are gearing up for a monster home game Sunday at The Dunk against No. 22 Marquette. It’s an intriguing game, to be sure, but first it is impossible to approach this game and not think back to 1978.
If you lived in Rhode Island and loved sports in that Winter of ’78, a few events stuck out like a sore thumb. First was just a horrendous weather winter. In January an ice storm glazed power lines around the state and knocked out power for days to hundreds of thousands of residents. That wasn’t very fun, but served as just an annoyance to what was around the corner.
Beginning mid-day on Monday, February 6, snow began to fall throughout New England. By rush hour Route 95 was a disaster, as was downtown Providence and hamlets around the state. Drivers stranded behind four-wheel drive vehicles stuck in the ice and snow understandably lost their patience and ditched their cars. Commuters walked home, or walked off the Interstate to the nearest watering hole with a light on.
By the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 7th the State was at a standstill. Television – WJAR was King – proved to be a lifeline. Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy regularly held press conferences wearing a red, flannel shirt that instantly became his trademark and helped his approval ratings soar. Unclogging the highways and byways took days. The best mode of travel was by snowmobile as a still-record 27.6 inches of snow paralyzed the state.
As officials and workers dug out buried autos and unclogged side streets, Dave Gavitt and his Providence College Friars were ranked 20th in the national polls and just off a three-game losing streak after a sterling 16-2 start. One big game, the biggest of the season in fact, was scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 12. Dean Smith and his North Carolina Tar Heels (#7 in the polls) were due to come to the Civic Center. The Heels boasted All-Americans in Phil Ford and Mike O’Koren, two of six future NBA players.
I was not one of the nearly 7,000 fans (it’s 6,863 in PC’s media guide) who had to walk, or ride a snowmobile, downtown to the game. I did watch our TV where the senior trio of Bruce `Soup’ Campbell, Billy Eason and Bob Misevicius led the way but dynamic guard Dwight Williams lit the fuse. Steady Paul Oristaglio and reserves David Frye and Rudy Williams rounded out the core of what would be Gavitt’s last winning team at Providence.
Knocking off UNC wasn’t easy. The game played close and when Dean Smith went to his patented Four Corners offense with a 58-52 lead and 3:30 to go the Friars appeared cooked. But this story flipped and became a Providence tale, one of the most famous Friar wins ever. The Friars somehow went on a run to tie the game and then Campbell drew a double-team and found Eason who hit a short pop at the baseline for the lead. When Carolina’s incomprable Ford missed a tough foul line jumper, Providence had secured a 61-59 upset for the ages.
NOT QUITE THE SAME
Now, the situation that presents itself this weekend in Rhode Island is far from the same. For one, we better damn not see 27 inches around here!
Instead of North Carolina it’s Shaka Smart and Marquette coming to the Dunk (12:30 tip). Who knows what Route 95 and downtown may look like but this game WILL be played because the teams and officials are in town and ready to rock.
This is a big one for both teams, but mostly for the Friars. PC now owns legitimate dreams of winning the Big East regular season title for the first time ever. The Friars are unlikely to play three games lost due to COVID (vs. UConn, at Creighton and Seton Hall) and if they can find a way to split a series against Villanova they just may pile up enough wins to make history.
Marquette stands in the way and this is a major issue for a Friar team that was embarrassed by a stunning 88-56 (32!!!) count in Milwaukee on Jan. 4. That game was a true stunner with PC coming off a dominating win at DePaul and the Golden Eagles riding a four-game losing streak. The game was out of control early with Marquette leading 42-22 by halftime. We haven’t seen an Ed Cooley-coached team get boat-raced like that in quite a while.
What needs to change this time?
How about starting with Tyler Kolek, the Cumberland kid who spurned an offer to stay home and play for the Friars when he looked to transfer from George Mason last spring and instead chose Milwaukee. Kolek toyed with PC’s guards in the first matchup, dishing for 9 assists. How about MU tallying 24 assists on 31 field goals? That was easily Providence’s worst defensive showing of the season.
Marquette’s Justin Lewis is the best player in the game and a potential Big East Player of the Year but we’ll see what he can do versus Justin Minaya’s pesky, aggressive defense. That said, if the Friars don’t keep Kolek’s play-making skills under wraps, they won’t win this game.
Good guys get rewarded? Hard work gets rewarded?
That’s the story surrounding the elevation of Steve Napolillo to PC’s athletic director position. We heard months ago that Bob Driscoll was leaning heavily towards calling it a career after 21 years in Friartown and broke the story of his retirement last week. The elevation of Napolillo was always a strong possibility, but it became clear that new school President Kenneth Sicard was convinced by Driscoll that the requisite talent to lead PC athletics was already on hand.
Unlike Driscoll when he came to town, Steve Napolillo is a Friar, through and through. He listened to Driscoll when lured to his alma mater from the Pawtucket Red Sox with a job offer to mine the legions of PC fans and alumni for badly-needed financial support. That siren call clicked in Nap’s mind, and he took the opportunity and ran with it.
Things are never perfect in sports, however. As I like to say the other team is trying to win, too. In 2008, Driscoll dismissed Tim Welsh as his basketball coach and struck out on a few top choice replacements. That’s when he turned to Keno Davis, the National Coach of the Year at Drake. The very first time I met Keno I felt he was a good coach, but an awful fit at Providence. Shy and introverted, Davis was the opposite of Welsh, to say nothing of Pete Gillen or a Rick Pitino.
Davis won 19 games with Welsh’s players in 2008-09, losing in the NIT to Miami at the Dunk. For some reason, Driscoll and then-President Rev. Brian Shanley curiously awarded the new coach a contract extension through 2015-16. That move would come back to haunt the College.
The next year yielded just 12 wins, separate ugly off-court incidents regarding three players followed and by the end of the 2011 season I found myself sitting next to Napolillo watching the Friars play at Georgetown. PC was 14-9 but trending in the wrong direction in the middle of the Big East wars. As the 13th ranked Hoyas rallied to a stomach-punching 83-81 win, Napolillo asked me what I thought of Davis’ future prospects. Knowing he was under contract for another five years, I said something along the lines of ‘you better get used to him, because you can’t afford to get rid of him.’
Without skipping a beat Napolillo shot back “we can’t afford NOT to get rid of him,” citing the potential long-term damage multiple losing campaigns could inflict. That Georgetown loss started an ugly, season-ending stretch where the Friars lost 8 of their final 9 games. A few days after the end, Keno Davis was indeed fired.
Within days Driscoll and Shanley targeted and hired Ed Cooley. While they kept paying Davis for several years, the program owned a new life. Napolillo was a voice behind the scenes during that witching hour, no doubt knowing no one would answer his phone calls if Friar basketball sunk to the bottom of the Big East with Davis on the sidelines. Instead he teammed with Cooley and began a fundraising bonanza. Fueled by Cooley’s charisma, and the team’s 2014 Big East Tournament crown, Napolillo and trusted lieutenant Kevin Connolly began hitting home runs that eventually led to the christening of the Ruane Friar Development Center.
Let me close with a story about that project. When Cooley first began pushing for a practice facility, he mentioned a price tag of $10 million. I laughed and thought if they’d see $7 million they could build something great. But the wins started piling up on the fundraising trail, huge wins for Driscoll, Cooley and especially Napolillo. When trustee Michael Ruane stepped up with the naming rights gift I recall Cooley saying the building could be the best in the country with a price tag approaching $30 million.
Those are the types of wins, both cutting ties with Davis and convincing donors to buy into a vision, that led to Napolillo being ready to fill Driscoll’s shoes.
BRYANT ON FIRE AGAIN
When Bryant’s men’s hoop team was struggling a month ago, I barely raised an eyebrow. Sure, Jared Grasso, his players and the team’s most ardent supporters really, truly felt they could be better than a 4-7 start that included loss to Bethune-Cookman, Dartmouth and Stony Brook but I greeted the growing pains with a shrug of the shoulder.
Grasso began saying exactly what he should’ve said, namely that the team needed to be ready for Northeast Conference action and “be playing its best basketball in late-February.” Exactly.
Well it’s not yet February but Bryant is 11-8 overall and 8-1 in the NEC with a loss at Wagner (9-0 NEC) in overtime. In other words the Bulldogs can play with, and beat, anyone in the NEC. That’s all that matters.
Led by the scoring of Peter Kiss (22.3 ppg.), the interior defense of Hall Elisias and some potent shooting up and down the lineup, the Bulldogs could, and should, see themselves back in the NEC championship game come March. It won’t be easy and there will be speedbumps but this is a team that we could see joining the Friars on the big board come Selection Sunday.