PROVIDENCE – The idea of framing Saturday’s first-ever hoops get-together between Providence College and Rhode Island College as merely an exhibition game doesn’t paint a complete picture.
From Bob Walsh’s vantage point, the four-mile trek from RIC’s campus to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center represents yet another feather in his program’s cap. The numerous conference and postseason Little East Conference titles along with five NCAA Division III Tournament berths have transformed Walsh’s Anchormen into a hoops hotbed that few teams around these parts can even come close to replicating, regardless of one’s port of call. Such sustained success has helped open numerous eyes on the local front, as it’s fair to say RIC is no longer a hidden jewel.
Despite his club’s string of excellent play, Walsh hasn’t lost sight of who is the Ocean State’s top dog in college basketball. Despite some recent lean years, when PC asked Walsh if his squad could help round out its preseason slate, he viewed it as a sincere compliment.
“The basketball culture in this state is really important and that really starts with PC at the center of it,” feels Walsh, now entering his eighth season piloting the Anchormen. “We benefit from the fact that basketball is important in Rhode Island. Every one of my kids who’s from Rhode Island grew up watching the Friars play and going to their games.
“To play in the biggest venue in the state is special. Our kids are looking forward to the opportunity, and so am I,” added a genuinely appreciative Walsh.
The idea of having the neighboring colleges meeting on the court started gaining traction after Ed Cooley came onboard at Providence in March 2011. Knowing that RIC’s contract to play URI in exhibition play was set to run out – the Anchormen and Rams have met in each of the past four seasons – Walsh approached Cooley about arranging a preseason tune-up. After crosschecking schedules, a mutual date was agreed upon.
“Cooley and I have been friends for a long time, which is why I stayed on him (to make this inter-city hoops arrangement a reality)” says Walsh, a former Friar assistant coach under Tim Welsh. “(Providence) sees it as a good game, and knows we’ll compete and be prepared. Hopefully we can give them a challenge and get them ready for their regular season opener in a week.
“I honestly feel we’ve earned the right (to be playing under The Dunk’s bright lights), with what our program has done,” Walsh continued. “If we didn’t develop a championship program that was the best program in the state over the last seven years, I don’t think Providence would even consider playing us. Our guys have earned that right.”
The Anchormen squad that Walsh will bring downtown is one short on healthy bodies. At the moment RIC is equipped with a 10-player roster that will hopefully expand relatively soon with the additions of local products and freshmen Michael Neal and Austin Van Bemmelen.
A 2012 graduate of Shea High, Neal is sidelined with a concussion. Van Bemmelen, a sharpshooter who starred at North Providence High, is out with bronchitis.
In addition, “we’ve got another kid out with an ankle and another with a knee, so we’ve been pretty thin,” Walsh noted. “We had 22 guys at our meeting in September and we practiced with 10 guys on Thursday.”
As usual, Walsh has compiled a roster that’s heavy on local talent. Among the notables include a pair of Pawtucket natives in Nyheem Sanders and Jazz Robinson. A six-foot junior guard, Sanders is the younger brother of former Boston College and Fairfield contributor Rakim Sanders. Listed as a 6-2 freshman guard, Robinson joins RIC after playing a key role on St. Raphael’s 2011 state title.
One of the biggest challenges awaiting Walsh is finding a way to make up for the production lost due to the graduation of Mike Akinrola, the Woonsocket native who topped last season’s RIC squad in scoring and rebounding. With no true post presence in the mix at the moment, Walsh is prepared to attack opponents with a freewheeling style that emphasizes turning defense into easy offense.
“We’re going to be a little different in that we’ll play more wide open on offense and defend with more pressure, which in turn will hopefully us to take advantage of the break,” said the coach.
As for RIC’s opponent come Saturday night, Walsh stopped by Providence’s 88-45 exhibition bludgeoning of Assumption College last weekend and saw a Friar outfit that looked just as potent on the game film he watched a few days later.
“From this time last year, I noticed a huge difference. The two things to me is that they seem much more together and cohesive as far as the defensive end, and much tougher. Also, they just seemed to be completely bought in and on the same page to the point that Assumption could not get a good look at the basket at all,” stated Walsh, who would swing by PC’s practices at Alumni Hall during Cooley’s first season at the helm.
“Ed had to change the entire culture on and off the floor and get them used to a high level of accountability. That takes time and players buying in. It takes guys like Vincent Council and Bryce Cotton to say ‘Hey, this is a guy I’ve got to get used to.’ There’s a certain level of belief you have to have from a basketball sense as well, but it’s a culture change and the time that’s needed to get it done.”
Powerful showing against Assumption aside, Walsh has no intention of having RIC serve as nondescript cannon fodder and lay down at the feet of a Big East school.
“Our guys will scrap and we’ll defend and be tough,” was the battle cry Walsh sounded. “We’ll be fired up.”