Games at the Ryan Center between the University of Rhode Island and Providence College are no more than the stuff of highlight reels for the players who will be on the court Saturday.
None of the current Rams or Friars has seen Kingston when Providence is in town. The last meeting on URI’s home court was in 2019, a lifetime ago in the current landscape of college basketball.
The list of what’s changed since then is long, ranging from the rosters to the sidelines. David Cox was leading a veteran URI team back in 2019. Ed Cooley’s Providence squad was retooling after an NCAA Tournament miss the year prior. Now, it’s Archie Miller leading the Rams, while the Friars are at a new level after their Sweet 16 run last spring.
What hasn’t changed - even if the players don’t know it yet - is the intensity that will greet them when the ball is tipped at 5 p.m.
“I’ve seen it good,” Miller said of the Ryan Center. “Everything I’ve heard, obviously this one gets ratcheted up even more. I’ve been involved in rivalries as a player. You remember these games. These are the ones you want to be in. You want to have great respect for how hard you want to play.”
With the lack of rivalry experience, it’s no wonder the return of the game to Kingston brings a matchup of two teams that are very much still finding themselves. The Rams are taking steps at Miller’s urging but haven’t hit their stride. Providence loaded up with talent and has tried to keep the bar high after last year’s run, but the new Friars have yet to meet it.
URI is sitting at 2-5, with its lone wins coming against Stony Brook and Illinois State. Most other games have been close, like a four-point loss to Boston College this past Sunday in which the Rams stumbled down the stretch.
“We’re getting better,” Miller said. “We’re a far cry from where we were in October. Our competitive toughness is starting to get better. We’re much more understanding of how you have to play to win, so I’m proud of that.”
Providence is 5-3 but has yet to beat a team with a winning record. The best opponents on the schedule were all a step ahead, with the Friars falling to Miami and St. Louis in the Hall of Fame Tip-off and losing just a few days ago to TCU. The defeat against the Horned Frogs was particularly jarring, as the Friars struggled in all facets of the game and lost by 13 points.
“We’ve got to try and put this one behind us quickly as we have a tough game coming up on the road,” Cooley said following the loss. “We’ve got a couple of desperate teams. We’ve got a really hard game to prepare for. We’ve got a lot of work to do in a short period of time.”
It seems to be a matter of putting it all together, because there are certainly some ingredients. Kentucky transfer Bryce Hopkins has been as good as advertised on most nights. Point guard Jared Bynum, the strongest link to last year’s success, runs the point well, though even he has had some ups and downs. Ed Croswell is probably still giving former URI coach Cox nightmares after his 13-point, 15-rebound double-double in last year’s matchup with the Rams.
“For our program to represent our side of things the right way, we’re going to have to play very, very well,” Miller said. “They’re a talented, talented team. They’re coming together. A lot of new faces, kind of like us. I know they’re coming off a tough loss against TCU. TCU is a very good team. So we’re going to get a good Providence on Saturday. They’re going to be motivated. They’re going to be ready.”
URI has dealt with expected bumps in Miller’s first season at the helm. They dropped their first two games of the season before beating Stony Brook. The emergence of George Washington transfer Brayon Freeman, who entered with big expectations but struggled early, has given the Rams a shot in the arm. Rhody’s last two defeats have been by a total of seven points.
Ishmael Leggett is leading the Rams in a breakout season with 18.3 points per game. Freeman has scored double figures in four straight.
URI ranks in the top 100 in defensive efficiency by KenPom ratings, but has had a much more difficult time at the offensive end. Turnovers have been a constant thorn in Rhody’s side.
“We’re not good enough offensively right now,” Miller said. “Myself, I’m not doing a good enough job teaching offense right now. We have to find a way to get easier baskets, we have to find a way to turn the ball over less, we have to find a way to get cleaner looks.”
Miller is looking forward to his first taste of the Ocean State rivalry, and he’ll be opposite a good friend. He and Cooley worked together for USA Basketball at the FIBA U19 world championships in 2015.
“I think the thing that I noticed later in my career being in the Atlantic 10, and following Rhode Island, knowing Ed a little bit, I started getting a little bit of the flavor and then when game was on, I checked it out,” Miller said. “I always knew when the game was played here how hotly contested it was, that the environment was electric. Now living here, you really understand how close you are to one another. You have two really great basketball traditions very, very close together. It’s not a huge separation in terms of where people live and who they pull for. It’s a unique thing.”
Rhode Island won the last matchup held at the Ryan Center, with Fatts Russell leading the Rams to a 75-61 win over the Friars. After a one-year hiatus for the game in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Providence won the 2021 matchup 66-52 in the capital city.
Saturday’s game will be the 134th meeting between the rivals. The Friars lead the all-time series 75-58.