Nate Watson led the Friars with a career-high 23 points
By KEVIN McNAMARA
One fact that’s been lost amid the nervous excitement of the dawning of this bizarre college basketball season has been the relative inexperience sitting on Ed Cooley’s bench.
The Providence Friars are picked to finish third in the Big East despite losing five seniors and having one senior starter returning. Only four players who saw significant playing time for the Friars a year ago were in uniform for Wednesday’s season opener against Fairfield.
That’s the best – and only – reason Cooley could pinpoint after his team shook off a sluggish 12 minute start in what turned into a 97-56 romp. The Friars lost star guard David Duke to two fouls, looked disjointed on offense and were clearly shook early on but ultimately settled down.
“Hell yeah, I was concerned,” Cooley said. “It was a credit to our leadership, especially Nate Watson. We jumped on his back.”
Watson scored 15 of his career-best 23 points in the first half, most of which came after Duke returned with 8:42 to play in a 17-17 tie. The team’s senior big man was simply unstoppable in the post, twisting and turning to convert on eight of his 11 shots. He also added 10 rebounds.
“I was so ready to play. I haven’t played in eight months,” Watson said. “I’ve never been this happy in my life just to go on the court. I just wanted to put the ball in the basket and win for my teammates.”
The Friars out-scored Fairfield 35-18 to close the first half and then delivered the knockout punch with a 15-3 start to the second half. Duke dominated that stretch and went on to finish with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in 24 minutes.
While Duke, Watson, A.J. Reeves (14 points) and Greg Gantt played big minutes a year ago, the rest of the Friars either sat out last season, played elsewhere or are new to college ball. Maybe it’s not a surprise that the two other experienced players showed they are ready to roll.
Noah Horchler, who played three seasons at North Florida, came off the bench for 11 points and 9 rebounds. Ed Croswell cleaned the backboards at La Salle a year ago and he looked strong inside with 10 points and six boards. PC won the rebound battle, 44-30, and held the Stags to 28 percent shooting in the second half.
“They manhandled us up front,” said Fairfield coach Jay Young. “Just no answers for their frontcourt. Nate (Watson) is going to be playing for a lot of years and a lot of money.”
Cooley alternated Watson with Kalif Young for the last few seasons. This year he’ll be able to play Horchler and Croswell with Watson in a rotation that will cause opponents headaches.
“We have some depth up there,” Cooley said. “We have some guys that can really finish and score. We have a lot of girth and length between the three. Hopefully we can keep putting pressure on the front of the rim because we’re going to need it.”
While the frontcourt shined, the backcourt will clearly ride on the shoulders of Duke, Reeves and transfer point guard Jared Bynum. The little guy controlled the pace and dished for eight assists. PC was credited with 21 team assists on 34 field goals.
The Friars won’t be able to survive many slow starts when they travel to the Maui Invitational in Asheville, N.C. next week. PC is facing Indiana Monday and matched up against Texas and Davidson pod in the second round.
“We haven’t played in eight months. That’s unheard of,” Cooley said. “Definitely were some jitters, I don’t think it was anything but that. It was the first time Jared and David were playing in the backcourt together. That’s what I would attribute it to because once we got comfortable I think we had some decent synergy.”
*Friars opened game making just 8 of first 23 shots. Offense kicked in with Watson rolling inside as the big man hit 7-of-9 first half shots for 15 points.
*After picking up two fouls in opening 4:06, David Duke went to bench. He returned with 8:42 left in a 17-17 game. Friars closed half 24-12. Duke finished with 18 points.
*Ed Cooley’s sixth man was Kris Monroe. The redshirt sophomore from North Carolina is a sniper in practice who hasn’t found a groove in game action. He looked good in this one, more active around basket and flashing his 3-point stroke. Finished with a career-high 8 points.
*UP NEXT: Maui Invitational (Asheville, N.C.), vs. Indiana, Nov. 30. The Friars and Hoosiers have played only once at the old `third place game’ at the 1973 Final Four. Without the injured Marvin Barnes, the Friars lost to Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers, 97-79
*Ed Cooley owned a special bond with recently deceased Hall of Fame coach John Thompson. He chose to honor the ex-PC star and Georgetown coach by walking onto the floor with Thompson’s signature towel over his shoulder. He kept the towel on his lap the entire game and will continue to honor Thompson all season. “That towel, (Thompson) was the first person I thought about walking out on that floor today,” he said.
*Finally, Cooley began the game wearing a black mask over his nose and mouth. That didn’t last long. The coach said he will try to work with the mask but said “it’s very challenging for me. I’m a very vocal coach. I’m trying my hardest.”