PROVIDENCE – Call it the definition of a Friar full circle.
The Providence College men’s basketball contest that took place March 2, 2004 isn’t referenced in the sections of the media guide devoted to noteworthy dates and games in program history, and with good reason: On that night, nothing went right. Pittsburgh waltzed into the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and laid a major hurt on the Ryan Gomes-led and Tim Welsh-coached Friars, rolling to a stunningly easy 88-61 victory.
“I remember,” said PC Athletic Director Bob Driscoll when reached Monday.
At that time, PC was riding a wave of historic proportions. The Friars were ranked 12th in the Associated Press' Top-25 poll – the school’s highest perch since 1978 – and in prime position to win the Big East regular-season title. Enter sixth-ranked Pittsburgh, which took a wrecking ball to those good vibrations and some may contend helped kick off a 10-year cycle that has been largely spent in college basketball’s wilderness.
Come Tuesday night at The Dunk against Marquette, the Friars have a chance to at long last emerge from the woods. For the first time since getting roughed up by Pittsburgh in 2004, Providence is playing a vital home game that just happens to fall during the first week of March.
Take it from someone who has had an up-close view to the litany of happenings that have made the past 10 years in Friar history largely forgettable. There is definitely a buzz factor that may not match the fervor surrounding that ’04 Friar squad, but there’s no doubting the significance of what’s riding on Tuesday’s outcome.
“I think it’s the most meaningful game we’re going to play relative to the NCAA post-season in the last nine years. It’s a critical game and one you spend your whole career battling for,” agrees Driscoll. “If we can win this game, which I have high expectations we are, I think it puts us in really good position for an at-large bid.”
Yes, Providence did qualify for the NCAA Tournament in 2004, however the loss to the Panthers kicked off a four-game losing skid to end what was a promising season. Underneath the surface, there was a strong belief that there was plenty of work that required attention, particularly from an off-the-court vantage point.
“It was a little bit of smoke and mirrors back then. If you look at the infrastructure and the facilities at the time, that team basically did it on the back of Ryan Gomes, and Coach Welsh did a good job,” Driscoll noted. “They caught lightning in a bottle, but I don’t think it was sustainable. What we have now is built on a much stronger foundation, if you will.”
Arriving at that point hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. There is no need to re-open every wound that has made this 10-year string of non-NCAA participation one of great anguish and frustration. Tracking progress solely through wins and losses shouldn’t be seen as the first and last resort.
Fans who spend big money for tickets and donate to the program don’t want to hear about having patience. They see other programs reaping the benefits, they say, so why can’t we join the conversation?
To Driscoll, plenty of rehabbing needed to be done before tackling the two most important hurdles of them all: Winning, then doing so on a consistent basis.
“We’ve invested a lot of time in the last 10 years that may not show on the court, but what you’re seeing now with the leadership of Ed (Cooley), the quality of the student-athletes, the fans at The Dunk and how great The Dunk is, that’s a lot of hard work by people behind the scenes,” Driscoll pointed out. “Ultimately you hope that culminates by winning games on the court. You can’t consistently do that unless you have all those other pieces in place.
“People talk all the time that administrations win championships. You can have the greatest coach in the world, but if you don’t support him and give him what he needs to be successful, that’s not going to happen,” he continued. “I’m proud of what my staff and organization has accomplished given where we started. I think in this new conference, we’re as good as anybody in terms of infrastructure and how we do our business. In the group we’re competing against, we can be and have been successful.
“The best lessons are the ones you learn from your challenges and I think we’re on the precipice of doing something special. I’m hoping and praying that happens this year, but hopefully we’ll start doing it on a consistent basis. I couldn’t say that 10 years ago or even five years ago.”
The equation surrounding the matchup against the Golden Eagles is pretty straightforward. Win and the Friars would assure themselves of some NCAA-esque breathing room heading into Saturday’s road date at Creighton. A loss Tuesday wouldn’t necessarily result in curtains, though the sledding would become much more challenging.
“You have to capitalize on the moments that are given to transform what you’re trying to accomplish, and this is one those moments,” Driscoll said. “I’m thrilled that we’re playing for something of significance this late in the year.”
Ten years after the Pittsburgh debacle, the chance for atonement is at hand.
“It took a lot of pounding rocks without a lot of success coming, but that’s where it takes mental toughness to continue to push the rock forward when you’re not getting the end results, but knowing that you’re doing the right thing,” said Driscoll on the eve of what has been a rare sight in Providence – a significant regular-season game taking place during the sport’s most acclaimed month.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03