Kevin McSports

Opportunity Knocks once again for Friars in trip to Connecticut

Opportunity Knocks once again for Friars in trip to Connecticut

Adama Sanogo and UConn will welcome Providence in Hartford Saturday (Photo: PC Athletics)


For so many years that long, winding trip through the Connecticut woods offered nothing but opportunity for the Providence College Friars.

Sure the 30-plus year basketball relationship between PC and UConn in the Big East had its ups and downs. The early years, back when Joe Mullaney and Dom Perno were swimming upstream, aren’t very memorable. The Friars then rode the spectacular, but brief, Rick Pitino magic carpet ride while UConn regrouped after the hiring of Northeastern coach Jim Calhoun.

Then things changed – for good. Calhoun brought the Huskies Uptown, to the Big East’s executive suite. They became a true national program, filled with NBA players and splashy NCAA Tournament wins. In his 13th season in Storrs, after three losses in regional finals, Calhoun and his gritty kids knocked down the door to a Final Four. Rip Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin and the boys cut the nets down in 1999 and the UConn dynasty had catapulted to another level.

Providence never did maintain anything close to the same national stature but the Friars didn’t exactly crawl up in some hoop corner and die. They’d always pester the Huskies, pull off the occasional upset and become a certified thorn-in-the-side of Calhoun’s always highly ranked squads.

Anyone remember the 1994 Big East Tournament when a Donyell Marshall/Ray Allen loaded UConn team was stunned by Michael Smith, Abdul Abdullah, Dickey Simpkins, Rob Phelps, et al? Or can we just say Ryan Gomes, 2004?

But by the end of the 2000’s, the Huskies went haywire, and once that happened the UConn-Providence series died.

First, Calhoun retired in 2012 but by then the school with Yankee Conference football roots had deluded itself into thinking it could play ball with the nation’s pigskin powers. UConn actually did run with the big dogs for a moment, playing itself into the 2011 Fiesta Bowl (with an 8-4 record) for a date with the Oklahoma Sooners. Let it be said that after a 48-20 loss in the Arizona desert, UConn football began a quiet death. On March 9, 2013 UConn played its final regular season Big East basketball game when Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright led the Huskies to a second overtime win over the Friars at Gampel Pavilion, 63-59.

A week later the Big East’s Catholic Seven – DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova – announced a split with the football pretenders like UConn. That sport’s promise of unending TV and bowl dollars led to the formation of the American Athletic Conference and instead of bus rides to downtown Providence and Queens for basketball battles, Connecticut was now jetting to Tulane and Tulsa, Memphis and Orlando for games that excited no one in the Nutmeg State.

That charade didn’t last very long. UConn’s football fortunes (despite building multi-million dollar training centers in Storrs) sank like a stone. Kevin Ollie took over for Calhoun and shockingly won the 2014 National Championship but the basketball program also faltered. Ollie stopped recruiting pros, he was caught with his paws in the NCAA cookie jar and former rivals around the East couldn’t stop laughing at UConn’s misfortune.

But time owns a way of correcting its sins.

By 2018 things began to turn upwards in Storrs. Ollie was fired amidst a stream of lawsuits and replaced with Dan Hurley. That he just happened to be winning big at Rhode Island made this recipe all the sweeter.

Three years in came news that UConn had seen the light: it wanted out of The American and craved a new basketball life in the Big East. Pushed by execs at Fox and Madison Square Garden, the Big East presidents voted to throw UConn a life raft. Yes, there would be no Syracuse or West Virginia, Pittsburgh or Louisville, but it was time to admit defeat on the football front. New partnerships with Butler and Creighton and Xavier offered the hope and promise that Husky fans in the state craved.

That leads us to this winter of 2021. UConn actually began its second tour of the Big East in 2020 but that was the awful Covid winter with no fans (or media) at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies and Friars matched up twice with each winning on their respective home floor but a much clearer, normal and spirited resumption of the UConn-PC series is set for this Saturday.

The 75th edition of the matchup between these two New England basketball school is set for a sold out XL Center in Hartford. The Huskies are nationally ranked (No. 20), while the Friars (10-1) are knocking on the door. The game will mark the first contest with thousands of hearty UConn fans in the stands as a new Big East member.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” PC star Nate Watson said of his first-ever trip to Hartford . “We’ve got ourselves a new rival instead of Rhode Island. This is my last year so I definitely want to go out with a bang.”

Friar coach Ed Cooley is expecting not only a superb UConn team but “one of the better (not bigger!!) crowds they’ve had there in decades.”

It’s an extremely stiff test for Cooley’s team in its Big East opener but also a golden opportunity. Like teams coached by Rick Barnes and Tim Welsh before them, the Friars have a chance to travel those winding turns of Route 6 and face a Top 25 UConn team in downtown Hartford. Win and this PC team will be in the Top 25, likely at its’ neighbor’s expense. Lose and PC will simply get ready for Georgetown.

But the good news is we have this series back. UConn’s spoiled fans may not regard PC as any sort of marked `rival’ but this is a new day. There is no Syracuse or Pittsburgh to measure yourself against. Instead there are the four schools that have won the most Big East games from 2013-2021: Villanova, Xavier, Creighton and, yes, Providence.

Many of the same schools are clashing on the recruiting trail. Make no mistake, UConn’s return to the Big East will hurt the Friars in recruiting. It already has. Current freshman Corey Floyd’s father played at Providence and was heavily recruited by Cooley. So were UConn signees Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan.

Cooley and Hurley are actually quite friendly. When Hurley coached at Rhode Island, the two men owned homes about two miles away from one another. They also famously clashed in a screaming, finger-pointing love fest at the Ryan Center one year but as Hurley told the KevinMcSports Hour, he’s matured from thinking that big games were like “mortal combat between me and Ed and one of us is going to die.”

Now he’s at UConn, coaching a Top 25 team, recruiting at an elite level and dreaming of returning the Huskies to Final Fours.

But first he has to win games like Saturdays, games with 15,500 in the stands, games against old Big East neighbors who can’t wait to ride into town and leave with a victory to crow about.



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