Since the 1950s, Providence College basketball has been one of the great story lines in all of college sports, a New England version of the cinematic Hoosiers.
This tale flat-lined for too many years. But make no mistake: the Friars are back to the future, playing a marquee game tonight at Madison Square Garden, where the PC hoop legend really began all those years ago, in the early 1960s, with the National Invitational Tournament, when that post-season playoff at the Garden overshadowed the NCAA’s tournament.
The young men who will face Creighton tonight at 8:30 may not know the names Vinny Ernst, Jimmy Walker, Johnny Egan or Ray Flynn, but tonight they are dribbling in the sneakers of those PC greats. And Marvin Barnes, John Lenihan, Lenny Wilkens, Otis Thorpe, Ryan Gomes, Eric Murdoch, Ernie D., Joe Hassett, Kevin Stacom, Mike Riordan and Dexter Westbrook.
Once again, the Friars are a wonderful story, a replay of a familiar theme. Tiny, Roman Catholic college in an urban neighborhood in the nation’s smallest state. With less than 4,000 undergraduates, one of the smallest schools in the nation to play Division One college hoops. The tale of the Little School That Could was always an obvious one, especially when it defeated Big State University from Anywhere Else, USA, or knocked off a college basketball royalty team like Duke or North Carolina.
There has never been big-time football on this campus, so basketball is the winter passion of students, alums and Rhode Island’s legion of subway PC fans. (The PC hockey team, too, is having a fine season, but college hockey is a regional sport doesn’t vault a college team to the national stage in the same manner as basketball).
This year’s team is mostly a gang of unheralded overachievers, along with one very, very good player in shooting guard Bryce Cotton. The coach, Ed Cooley, is a native of Providence’s seen-better-days south side, the first African-American coach at a school that in the 1960s pioneered in recruiting black players to an overwhelmingly white campus.
He has steered this team through some rocky times and unfortunate injuries to have his players peaking at tournament time. Cooley’s team has ushered the excitement back to Providence, where crowds in recent desultory seasons have thinned considerably from the Glory Years of Dave Gavitt, Joe Mullaney and Rick Pitino.
PC was once largely a commuter school founded in 1917 to educate the children of Rhode Island’s Roman Catholic immigrants. Those days are history; the college is now more a respected regional school than ever. Some local alums grumble that it has become so competitive that their children are having too hard a time getting in.
Yet for more than a half-century, basketball has put PC on the map. In the famous words of the Rev. Robert J. Slavin, PC president, ``Seven-hundred years of Dominican scholarship and nobody ever heard of us until we put five kids on the floor at Madison Square Garden.’’
Without basketball, it is likely PC would have a profile more like such other New England Catholic colleges as Assumption and Stonehill, Cooley's alma mater.
This team may not get to the NCAA Final Four, as was the case with Dave Gavitt’s 1973 Dream Team that featured Stacom, Barnes and Ernie D. Or equal the frenzied, upset-laden path of the 1987 Rick Pitino team that also went to the Final Four.
But the 2014 Friars, helped along by a reconstituted Big East Conference that returned to its roots as a basketball conference after almost being destroyed by the greed that suffuses big time college football, look like they have already played their way in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.
Another upset by PC tonight over Creighton will give this team momentum and attract much attention from the ubiquitous sports media. A win tonight will inevitably give the scribes the story line that is so familiar to generations of Rhode Island basketball fans.
It may be cliche but it it is ours. Then, it’s on to the NCAAs! Few televisions in the Ocean State will be tuned anywhere but to the PC game tonight at 8:30. The Friars on the most glamorous stage in college basketball, vying for a Big East championship.
A wonderful Rhode Island tableaux: Five PC kids back on the floor at Madison Square Garden.