PROVIDENCE — There was a time last spring and summer when Providence Friar fans were salivating at the promise surrounding the 2012-13 season. A highly-touted recruiting class coupled with a group of noteworthy holdovers seemed to signal clearance for takeoff in Ed Cooley’s second year, giving off an aura that for the first time in a long while, Providence was a program on an up swing.
Alas, those grand visions and best-laid plans have been tucked away in the corner under a sign that reads, “Do not open until Late Night Madness, 2013.” Instead of going full speed ahead, Cooley was forced to put down a deposit on future seasons. No Ricky Ledo and no Kris Dunn until January at the earliest has forced pundits to recalibrate expectations surrounding this year’s Friar lot, though Cooley isn’t ready to sell his team short.
“My expectations are always high, but I have to have reality when you’re developing a group,” said Cooley on the eve of PC’s season opener, on tap Saturday afternoon at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center against the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “I did not anticipate not having Kris or Ricky, but you’ve just got to make adjustments. I’m optimistic to get on the floor and see where that takes us.”
If you can get past the fact that Providence will come after opponents in the season’s early going with a skeleton crew – just seven scholarship players are at Cooley’s disposal – you’ll see a core in Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton that’s as solid and formidable as any in the Big East.
Alas, three players alone do not translate to fruitful on-court happenings, hence why PC’s potential success hinges upon several factors that range from players taking steps forward and how quickly Dunn can progress from shoulder surgery.
“We’ve got great chemistry and I think we can do something special,” notes junior forward Kadeem Batts, one of those aforementioned Friars whose contributions will solidify how everything unfolds.
In Council, the Friars are blessed with one of college basketball’s rare traits – a four-year player blessed with plenty of starting experience. Preseason adoration has come by the bushel for the 6-foot-2 Council this fall, which speaks volumes of how this player is perceived in college basketball circles considering he’s played on a Friar team that hasn’t come close to reaching postseason play in his first three years.
Of course there’s only one thing for Council to do now – deliver on the advance billing. While his scoring and ball-handling skills will be crucial, so too will the leadership mantle Cooley has bestowed upon Council.
“As a captain, I definitely have to set the tone,” said Council. “If I’m going hard in practice, that means the team is going hard. If I slack, the team is going to slack.”
From Cotton’s freshman to sophomore year, it’s hard to find a player in the country who made a bigger jump. His scoring average shot up 10 points thanks to 77 made 3-pointers, many of which were made in transition. The next step in Cotton’s evolution is to see whether he can become more of a dribble-drive threat and get to the free-throw line more than the 101 times he managed last year.
Lost in the hoopla surrounding the promising additions of Dunn and Ledo was Josh Fortune. As it turns out, the 6-foot-5 Fortune is the one with a prominent role as Cooley will ask the Virginia native to backup either the guards or Henton at small forward. Fortune’s greatest value is his ability to fire away from deep, a knack that was affirmed during the six threes he hit in last weekend’s 22-point showing in exhibition play against Rhode Island College.
Cooley showed that he wasn’t afraid to deploy walk-on Ted Bancroft during the Friars’ two preseason games. A junior from Marion, Mass., Bancroft wound up logging 30 combined minutes against Assumption College and RIC, a sum that further illustrates the all-hands-on-deck approach Providence has no choice but to swear by.
Henton was like a quiet assassin during his freshman season at PC, one that consisted of big shots and even bigger minutes. For an encore, the 6-foot-6 Henton figures to give the Friars a substantial advantage at the three spot with his ability to bury hoops (14.3 ppg last season) and clean the glass (8.6 rebounds).
A year ago, the 6-foot-9 Batts found himself buried in Cooley’s doghouse, sitting out the Friars’ first 11 games due to “failing to meet the obligations of a student-athlete.” Once the suspension was lifted, Batts desperately tried to shake off the rust and augment the Friars’ attack. Save for his 27-point outburst against Final Four participant Louisville, Batts had a hard time getting back on track.
A return to the promising form Batts displayed as a freshman, when he started all 32 games, is almost a mandate, which the player openly acknowledges. “What happened (in the past) needed to happen; it built my character and my stamina both mentally and physically.”
While Cooley hopes Batts can hold down the fort and display toughness, he’s hedging that 6-foot-8 sophomore Brice Kofane can emerge as a shot-blocking deterrent. There were times last season when Kofane struggled to stay on the floor, though it’s not out of bounds to think that with an additional year under Cooley’s guiding hand that this native of Cameroon can average more than 15 minutes, his figure in 2011-12.
Of all the Keno Davis’ holdovers Cooley inherited, junior Lee Goldsbrough has emerged from a player who on paper didn’t seem to mesh with the new coaching staff to someone who could very well serve as the first player off the bench. The 6-foot-9 Goldsbrough seems more muscular now than he did 12 months ago, which is a tribute to the English native taking to heart Cooley’s message.
“He’s going to play a key part and is somebody we now count on,” said Cooley matter-of-factly about Goldsbough. “His minutes are going to increase every game.”
Additional help will come when Sidiki Johnson becomes eligible at the start of the second semester. A rugged force who also can keep pace with the guards on the fastbreak, the 6-foot-10 Johnson transferred from Arizona last February.
Christmas came early for Cooley and the Friars when the Big East coaches in the conference’s preseason poll decreed a last-place finish, a mark that no doubt stems from the news regarding Ledo and Dunn. Such a declaration became the gift of ammunition, and as Council says, not a day goes by where PC doesn’t address the perception outsiders have of the program.
“I don’t think we deserve last place, so we’ve got to go out and show it,” said Council.
Cooley understands the power of motivation, but he also knows that it’s important not to get caught up on what others think.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to take it one game at a time,” said Cooley about an approach that figures to allow the Friars to stay the course in a season that will see whether the Friars are truly better than the sum of their parts.