A couple of weeks ago, the Providence College Friars fell to below .500 for the first time on the season. Coach Ed Cooley benched two of his best players, Vincent Council and LaDontae Henton, for the start of a game against Connecticut on January 31. In place of them, he started little-used Lee Goldsbrough and Ted Bancroft. Arizona transfer Sidiki Johnson decided to leave the Friars program around this same time. Cooley's honeymoon period with the media and fans appeared to be coming to an end.
A little over two weeks later, and the optimism over the Friars' future is suddenly rising to new heights. To prove my point, on Saturday, the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island was sold out for the first time in recent memory to watch the Friars host the 21st-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish (20-6 overall, 8-5 in the Big East).
The sold out crowd was rewarded with a 71-54 victory. Louisville Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino, according to Nick Coffey, was quoted as saying earlier this week that Providence was playing as well as anybody in the Big East. Some people scoffed at Pitino. After Providence's dominating victory on Saturday, their second win over a top-25 team in the last ten days, people aren't laughing anymore.
Notre Dame never had a chance. Notre Dame came into Providence having had three of their last four games go to overtime. One of those games, against Louisville, went to a remarkable five overtimes. Notre Dame wound up winning all three of those overtime games, but they may have paid the price Saturday against the Friars.
One of the best shooting teams in the country, Notre Dame was only 1-for-14 from three-point range. For the season, the Irish came into the game shooting 39% from three-point range.
It's been an incredible stretch of basketball for the Friars since they trailed, 36-25, at halftime against the University of South Florida in their last game prior to Notre Dame. Whatever Coach Cooley told his team at halftime of that game, he should put into a motivational book. The Friars came out on a 23-2 run to start the second half of that game versus USF. And they haven't stopped.
The Friars never trailed against Notre Dame. Providence, not Notre Dame, was the team that looked like the top-25 team. The Friars led at halftime, 34-26. In the second half, they stretched the lead to 63-39. Providence has always been a solid second half team, but Sunday showed what can happen if they don't dig themselves an early hole and put together two solid halves.
"We would have beaten a lot of teams today," Cooley was quoted as saying in an article by John Rooke. "We played like a championship team today."
Kadeem Batts led the way again for the Friars, scoring 20 points on 10-of-16 shooting. It marked the fourth time in the last five games that the 6-foot-9 junior has scored at least 20 points. I continue to believe Batts is developing into a potential NBA big man.
Notre Dame coach Jim Brey sounds like he is coming around to agreeing with me. "When Batts is doing (what he did) inside, he's a pro. It's almost impossible to stop him."
Vincent Council flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 7 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. More importantly, Council passed the great Ernie DiGregorio as the Providence career all-time assists leader. Council is only two assists shy of tying Sherman Douglas' Big East conference record for career assists. He'll have a chance to break the record in front of Douglas' alma mater's home crowd on Wednesday when the Friars (14-11, 6-7) play Syracuse (20-4, 8-3). Syracuse better be ready.