PROVIDENCE â€“ In his travels around the state following the 2012-13 season, whenever Ed Cooley has crossed paths Providence College basketball fans, they have met him with big smiles and thanks for providing hope for the future.
As far away as it may seem, PCâ€™s fan base canâ€™t wait for the 2013-14 season to tip off. They see the cast that is scheduled to return for the Friars â€“ fingers crossed on that front â€“along with two transfers and two incoming freshmen, and hope the mix contains the necessary ingredients to end what is a near-decade NCAA Tournament drought.
While fans may want to hop in the DeLorean and fast forward to six months from now, they shouldnâ€™t lose sight of why that optimism exists in the first place. The just-completed PC season should be remembered â€“ but not only for the 19 wins, or that the ball was still bouncing during the last week of March â€“ for those achievements donâ€™t even begin to describe what a hard-fought journey it was.
One day, you see your senior point guard (Vincent Council) go down and learn that heâ€™ll be sidelined for an extended period. The next day, itâ€™s revealed that your leading scorer (Bryce Cotton) is hindered by a bum ankle.
Then thereâ€™s the midseason addition of a prized freshman (Kris Dunn) and the understanding that patience is needed for a player who is playing games less than six months removed from shoulder surgery.
Another player, viewed as a key piece (Sidiki Johnson), comes aboard right before conference play. Nearly six weeks later, the sophomore forward is no longer in the mix.
This tumult of player movement came in what was just Cooleyâ€™s second year at the helm. The ever-constant shuffling of bodies explained why PC was limping along to the tune of a 2-7 Big East record. Fortunately for Cooley & Co., stability did arrive, and with it, a chance to salvage the season.
Over the final two months, the Friars gelled. Though Cooley didnâ€™t have much depth to work with, he and his players refused to bow to lowered expectations. The end result was 10 wins over the final 13 games, a run that even the most loyal Friar supporter wouldâ€™ve had a hard time imagining after a last-second 69-68 loss to Brown in late December.
The push to the finish line was like a brand-new foundation for a program that not too long ago was in a serious state of disrepair. Cooley hopes that fans remember that effort even as they envision what next season may offer.
â€śIâ€™m just proud of the perseverance and toughness they displayed,â€ť said Cooley about the consideration the 2012-13 PC squad merits. â€śNext year is going to present a lot of different challenges that our fan base canâ€™t see. Everybody is hoping, but there are separate challenges that weâ€™ll have to deal with. Something will come up. What it is, we donâ€™t know, but something will come up.â€ť
Before thereâ€™s a season to ponder, the offseason beckons for Cooleyâ€™s Friars. On many levels, it figures to be an interesting spring and summer. Here are some items that will be worth watching.
A resolution on Ricky Ledoâ€™s application for the NBA Draft is imminent â€“ the redshirt freshman has until April 28 to decide whether to throw his name in the hat or return to suit up for his hometown.
Ultimately, itâ€™s Ledoâ€™s call to make. While Cooley will offer as much support as he can, the coach is probably hoping for a decision that arrives sooner rather than later â€“ as the Friars will need to move forward recruiting-wise in case Ledo leaves.
â€śIâ€™ll continue to talk to Ricky, and obviously that deadline is coming up very, very soon,â€ť said Cooley. â€śAt the same time, I want to make sure Iâ€™m doing whatâ€™s best for him as well.â€ť
Another Friar who could leave with eligibility still on the table is Kadeem Batts. The redshirt junior is on track to graduate in May and could opt to get a head start on his post-amateur hoops future. Like Ledo, Cooley hopes to have some answers regarding Batts in the not-so-distant future.
With the Sidiki Johnson Experiment over, coupled with uncertainty hovering over Ledo and Batts, and Vincent Councilâ€™s four years up, the Friars could enter next season with 10 scholarship players â€“ Bryce Cotton, Lee Goldsbrough, Brice Kofane, LaDontae Henton, Carson Desrosiers, Kris Dunn, Josh Fortune, Tyler Harris, Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock.
The NCAA limits teams to 13 scholarships. Cooley was asked about awarding a scholarship to hardworking walk-on Ted Bancroft in the event the Friars are unable to bring someone in the fold next season.
â€śItâ€™s something weâ€™ve talked about and is definitely a possibility,â€ť said Cooley about Bancroft, who would be a senior. â€śIf we can add somebody who can give us what we need moving forward, weâ€™ll do that, too. Recruiting is an everyday thing and you never stop recruiting.â€ť
Making sure the band sticks together
Along with his numerous player roster question marks, Cooley is mindful of keeping his coaching staff intact. He says it wouldnâ€™t register as a shock to have someone come up to him at this weekendâ€™s Final Four in Atlanta and inquire about his coachesâ€™ services. But Cooley believes he is in the business of grooming his staff to be future head coaches, and not just assistants for other programs.
â€śWhen you look at programs that are building and eventually get over the top, the one thing they have is continuity among the staff. Thatâ€™s really important,â€ť Cooley noted. â€śGuys on the staff know their roles. They help organize team meetings and help greatly with scouting and recruiting.
â€śI think it would be a compliment if someone comes looking at our staff. It means I hired the right guys,â€ť he added. â€śYou canâ€™t be afraid to lose guys, especially if they can better their lives. I think theyâ€™re compensated well enough where they arenâ€™t going to get lured away because of money. Theyâ€™re going to be lured away because of opportunity.â€ť
Solidifying the schedule
Cooley said that working out an agreement for a high-caliber opponent to play a non-conference game at the Dunkinâ€™ Donuts Center is a tough chore â€“ the last non-Big East top 10 team to tango with PC on its home floor was No. 7 Memphis on Dec. 10, 2005. Amidst a steady stream of â€śthanks, but no thanks,â€ť he remains optimistic that something can be ironed out.
â€śWeâ€™ve asked a lot of people and itâ€™s just not happening right now,â€ť Cooley acknowledged. â€śWeâ€™re going to try and find the best opponent we can that helps our RPI and strength of schedule.â€ť
Providence will play Kentucky next year, albeit on a neutral floor, and getting one of the gameâ€™s marquee programs on the schedule speaks to Cooleyâ€™s willingness to play the best. Home games are already on the docket against Boston College and Brown, with Yale and Fairfield also in the mix. The Friars will travel to URI and participate in the Paradise Jam, set for Nov. 22-25 in the Virgin Islands.
The race for playing time is officially on
Cooley plans to conduct individual player meetings prior to boarding a plane for Atlanta later this week. One item that will surely be stressed is making sure that each returning Friar can start earning their keep the moment they exit the coachâ€™s Alumni Hall office.
The development of the PC players Cooley and his assistants inherited from the previous regime reveals a teaching side that yielded tangible results. Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts and Lee Goldsbrough have all come a long way since getting recruited to Providence by Keno Davis, and the individual success each player was able to achieve illustrates the passion Cooley has in instructing and molding from a pure basketball sense.
â€śAs a coach, our philosophy is to put you in your strength as an individual that will tie into team success,â€ť Cooley said.
The idea of exposing Kris Dunn to more competitive basketball after a short-circuited first year is what Cooley envisions after the promising guard received an invitation to try out for the Under-19 U.S. basketball team this June in Colorado. Cooley will also be on hand to serve as what he calls â€śa floor coach.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s going to be important for Kris to embrace the opportunity and not only compete, but make the team,â€ť Cooley said. â€śHeâ€™s got to go out there and do the little things that he did for our team â€“ become the best defender and an energy guy. Becoming a glue guy, thatâ€™s what he needs to develop.â€ť
Basketball players are often made during the summer months when very few are watching. Whether itâ€™s Cotton improving his ball-handling or LaDontae Henton honing his outside shot, the quest to become better in hopes of equaling the rising expectations of ardent Providence followers is already under way.