Playing on its home court, with tough battles already fought and a star shining, the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team will enter Friday’s rivalry matchup with Providence College feeling good about its chances in the annual spotlight game.
“I can’t compare anything else to it – the atmosphere, the crowd, the emotion. It means a lot. We’re very excited,” senior guard Jeff Dowtin said. “We know what’s at stake. We know we’re capable of winning this ballgame. We’re going to go out there with a lot of confidence.”
URI enters the 132nd meeting between the in-state foes with a 5-3 record. The defeats could be classified more as missed opportunities than missteps, but the need for a win remains, especially on the heels of an 86-81 loss at West Virginia on Sunday.
“It definitely takes on more meaning. It’s a huge rivalry, absolutely,” URI head coach David Cox said. “And for us, coming off a loss, getting an opportunity to play here at home, in front of a great crowd is another opportunity for us to win a big game. Providence is an excellent team, a well-coached team. Their record does not at all indicate how talented and how deep they are. For us, we’re looking at it as a huge opportunity.”
URI prevailed the last time Providence made the journey south to Kingston, with a veteran team led by Jared Terrell winning 75-68 on Dec. 2, 2017. That victory stopped the Rams’ seven-year losing streak in the series. Before that skid, URI had won four straight home games against Providence and is 39-28 all-time at home against the Friars. The Rams haven’t won in the capital city since 2002, a streak that continued with last year’s 59-50 loss in Cox’s first game against the Friars as head coach.
“It was tough last year. My sixth game as a head coach, walking into the Dunk, and it was loud and obnoxious,” Cox said. “It was everything that you expect it to be. Hopefully, it’ll be loud and obnoxious in our favor this year, and they’ll give Ed [Cooley] the blues as opposed to me.”
Dowtin expects what he calls “big-boy basketball” against the Friars, an intense game in a raucous atmosphere. While the crowd’s intensity will be up a few notches, it helps the Rams that they’ve played in similar on-court situations already this year. They own a win over Alabama, while falling short against Maryland, LSU and West Virginia. Maryland is a top-five team nationally, while the rest of that quartet has NCAA Tournament hopes.
“Definitely battle-tested. We’ve played a lot of big competition throughout the years and leading up to this,” Dowtin said. “My teammates and I are very confident in ourselves and our abilities. We know what we’re capable of doing.”
One teammate will be especially confident. Junior Fatts Russell is playing the best basketball of his career, with six straight games of more than 20 points. He tallied 32 points in the loss at West Virginia, and he’s done big things against Providence before. As a freshman, he scored 20 points off the bench in URI’s win over the Friars.
“He adjusted his mindset, he matured and what you’re seeing now is a young man whose game is evolving right before your eyes,” Cox said.
Russell can’t do it alone. Cyril Langevine and Tyrese Martin were also in double figures against West Virginia, but Dowtin struggled with just six points. The senior started the second half on the bench, as Cox tried to light a spark under his veteran leader.
“We need more contributions from more guys,” Cox said. “Fatts has been playing obviously at a very, very high level. We need some of the other guys step it up offensively to help him out. I think we played as tough a defense as we could against them, to be honest with you. I don’t like giving up 80-plus points, but they were at home, they were enormous – they were really, really big – and they pounded the ball inside. I thought our defense was solid enough, good enough to get us the victory on the road. Just a lack of offensive production from a number of guys didn’t help us.”
While the Rams look for small improvements, they’ll encounter a Providence team that is in need of big steps. The Friars are 5-4, having just snapped a three-game slide with a win over Pepperdine on Sunday. URI hasn’t paid attention to the results, though, seeing instead the potential that made the Friars the pick for fourth place in the Big East’s preseason poll.
“They’ve had their ups and downs, but we know they’re a great team,” Dowtin said. “We know they’re capable of winning big games. They play hard, they play tough, they have a deep roster. They play a lot of guys and all those guys are capable of coming out and performing. They’re going to have their best game when they play against us, so we’ve got to be ready.”
The rivalry always gets fans talking, but Cox doesn’t listen, saying he sticks to his routine – he goes home and he goes to work. Whatever the noise, the desire to win is there anyway.
“We put that pressure on ourselves,” Cox said. “We know. It’s a home game. It’s an opportunity to get a big win against an NCAA-caliber team, to help boost our resume. We know how challenging it’s going to be because of how talented and deep this team is and obviously how well-coached they are. We put that pressure on ourselves. Every time we come out on this floor, we’re trying to get better in practice. And every game, we’re trying to win. That’s what it’s all about.”