Rhode Island’s Fatts Russell scored a game-high 20 points in last year’s tilt with Providence College. Alpha Diallo led the Friars with 17. Both will be on the court Saturday when the teams meet again, but their history belies the change that will overtake the rivalry this season.
Seven of the 10 starters in last year’s game closed out their careers last spring. There’s a new head coach on one side, a youth movement for both. And the names that defined the rivalry over the last few years – Hassan Martin, Jared Terrell, Kyron Cartwright, Rodney Bullock – will give way to young stars.
A new era for Rhode Island’s flagship teams means a new era for their annual grudge match. The first chapter is set for 5 p.m. Saturday, at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
URI won last year’s game 75-68 at the Ryan Center, a victory that snapped Providence’s seven-year win streak. Starting a new streak won’t be easy, with the Friars off to a 5-2 start and the Rams trying to fight their way off shaky ground after last week’s home loss to Stony Brook, but they’re eager for the opportunity. They bounced back from the loss to the Seawolves with a win over Brown Wednesday.
“It gives everybody more of an edge,” junior Christion Thompson said of facing Brown and Providence this week. “It’s what we need, I think, at this point, especially coming off that loss we just had. The last two practices have been great and that’s what we needed.”
URI was off to a 2-1 start before falling flat against Stony Brook in a 68-58 defeat. The Rams struggled mightily at the offensive end, shooting 36 percent from the field and making only two of 24 3-point attempts. More importantly in the eyes of coach David Cox was that the effort that has been a Rams trademark for the last few years was missing. The shooting didn't improve against Brown, but the intensity did.
"That was Rhode Island basketball," Cox said.
The Rams will need a continued response against the Friars, who are coming off two straight home wins against Siena and Fairleigh Dickinson. URI has struggled in non-conference road games in general the last few seasons – losing six straight dating back to 2015 – and haven’t had much luck in the capital city for more than a decade. URI’s last win over the Friars in Providence came in 2002.
The youth movement will also be a factor. Only three Rams have played significant minutes against Providence. Jeff Dowtin logged 37 minutes in last year’s win, Russell totaled 24 and Thompson played 30 minutes across the 2015 and 2016 games, before missing last season with an injury. Two other Rams have seen limited action. Cyril Langevine played five minutes as a freshman and eight last year, as he worked his way back from an injury. Ryan Preston played three minutes last year.
Those numbers are reflective of what passes for a veteran in Kingston these days.
“It’s a lot on those guys,” Cox said. “They’re returning, they’re upperclassmen, but let’s be honest, Jeff is the most experienced of those three. Fatts is just a sophomore. It’s his first time really starting. Cyril has started here and there, but this is kind of his first time being the man. So they have a lot of responsibility, but I think they’re adjusting and adapting to it well.”
And even a small taste provides a crash course in the rivalry. URI’s veterans will pass along what they know to the four freshmen who are playing significant minutes.
“They don’t know it yet. They haven’t experienced it,” Cox said. “All we can do is continue to try to tell them and emphasize to them how hard it is to win these types of games in particular, because there’s a lot of emotion going into it. We’ll see how they respond. Until you experience it, both the Brown game and the game that we have on Saturday, you really don’t know how you’re going to respond. We’ve tried to rev up our practices for the last couple of days to get them ready for it.”
It's new for Cox, too, who has been watched the last four matchups from the second seat on URI's bench.
"It's a great game to play because of the rivalry, because of the intensity," Cox said. "It's going to be a very physical game. The entire state is kind of polarized right now by the game. I'm just excited for the first time being the lead guy on the sideline. And I like actually the fact that we're going up to the Dunk, going into hostile territory - we'll see how I respond and we'll see how these guys respond as well."
Providence will also be getting its feet wet. Diallo, Kalif Young, Makai Ashton-Langford and Nate Watson are back in the fold after playing big minutes against URI last season, but it will be new for most everyone else. Freshmen A.J. Reeves, David Duke and Jimmy Nichols have been regulars in the starting lineup and will make their rivalry debuts Saturday.
Whatever the cast – new era or not – the stage will look familiar.
“You’ve got to be ready,” Langevine said. “Last time, when we played PC here, the crowd was crazy. You can’t be nervous in those types of moments. You’ve got to embrace it.”