Two teams from Rhode Island in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament? With a little luck, and another victory or two in conference tournaments this week, it could happen.
Providence College and the University of Rhode Island are poised to make basketball history in the Ocean State. The unheralded Friars (20-11, 10-8 Big East) have exceeded all expectations this season. Big East coaches picked them to finish ninth and with good reason. They lost All-America guard Kris Dunn and promising big man Ben Bentil to the NBA Draft. But their replacements under the even hand of coach Ed Cooley have matured into a tough, opportunistic, defense-minded group that finished third. In addition, PC will take a six-game winning streak to the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. They closed the regular season with an 86-75 romp over St. John’s Saturday at the Garden and will play sixth-seeded Creighton Thursday night.
URI, a Top 25 team at the start of the season and a consensus Atlantic 10 Conference title contender thanks to the return of injured guard E.C. Matthews and the presence of shot-blocking senior Hassan Martin, stumbled early and hit bottom with a humiliating 53-43 home loss to Fordham on Feb. 15. Since then the Rams (21-9, 13-5) have been on a tear, winning their last five and gaining the confidence so necessary to make a strong post-season run. They tied Richmond for third but as a result of a tiebreaker will be seeded fourth at the Atlantic 10 Championships this week at Pittsburgh. The Rams finished with a thrilling 73-70 victory in overtime against Davidson Saturday before a full house of 7,263 at the Ryan Center in Kingston. The Rams will play in the A-10 quarterfinals Friday afternoon against No. 5 St. Bonaventure, No. 12 UMass or No. 13 St. Joseph’s. UMass and St. Joe’s will play in the first round, and the winner will challenge the Bonnies in the second round. URI and top-seeded Dayton could meet in the semifinals.
PC is striving for its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, which would be a first for the tradition-rich program. The Friars have gone to the tournament 18 times, starting in 1964.
URI is desperate to get into the tournament for the first time since 1999, and for the sake of long-suffering Rams fans, I hope they succeed. URI has made eight tournament appearances.
PC and URI have gone to the Big Dance in the same year three times: 1966, 1978 and 1997.