PROVIDENCE — Ed Cooley knew he was in store for some rough sledding the moment he signed up at Providence College last March.
The task is great, but even Cooley had shake his head in disbelief based on what went down prior to the Friars hitting the floor for their first exhibition game on Tuesday night. A thin roster was stretched even thinner as Cooley had just eight scholarship players available for his team’s tuneup against Assumption College.
While the Friars turned away the Division II Greyhounds, 64-51, the talk after the game centered around who didn’t suit up. Roughly two hours prior to the 7:05 tap at Alumni Hall, a sheet was passed out to the media announcing that freshman guard Kiwi Gardner is currently not eligible to compete based on NCAA findings. PC is appealing the decision, which is rooted in Gardner’s transcript coming out of high school.
Gardner is able to practice with the team while his decision is under review. The Oakland native, who didn’t arrive at PC until a week before classes, is expected to contribute heavily at the point guard position this season.
“That’s something that came as a big surprise to us,” Cooley said. “We thought everything was clear but we’ll appeal the process. Hopefully we’ll have a verdict (relatively soon).”
Another Friar dealing with off-court issues is sophomore forward Kadeem Batts, who like Gardner didn’t play last night. There were whispers that Batts was also dealing with academic issues, but Cooley set the record straight.
“That was more of a coaches’ decision,” said the first-year PC coach. “If you don’t do the right things, you’re not going to play for me. There are practice and communication issues, but he’ll be all right.”
As far as the Friars who actually logged minutes, Bryce Cotton finished with a game-best 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-6 from 3-point territory. Joining Cotton in the starting lineup were freshman LaDontae Henton (14 points), Brice Kofane, Gerard Coleman and Vincent Council (14 points).
Providence could never quite get into a steady offensive flow though ended up shooting 46 percent thanks in large part to a strong push at game’s end. The Friars fell behind 13-6 in the opening half before regrouping to take a 30-23 lead at halftime.
In a scene no one saw coming, Cooley called a timeout after Assumption opened the second half with an uncontested layup. Clearly frustrated with what he was seeing, Cooley pulled his starting group and inserted three walk-ons along with Cotton and sophomore Lee Goldsbrough. One of the walk-ons was Chris Carter, who checked into the game before Bilal Dixon.
To Cooley’s surprise, the trio of walk-ons provided the coach with the spark he was desperately seeking. “They set the tone to play together and play hard, that’s all it was.”
The problems resurfaced once Cooley saw fit to re-insert the starters as PC sat on a 43-40 lead with 10 minutes remaining. Assumption out-rebounded Providence by a 38-33 margin, a stat that did not sit well with the coach.
“They came in here and played very, very hard and I think they out-scraped us,” Cooley said. “We were fortunate that we had more talent on the floor, but let’s face it, we’re not trying to play against Assumption night-in and night-out.
“We have a long way to go, but it is what it is,” continued Cooley. “It’s an opportunity for these kids to grow and learn and hopefully we get better as we move forward.”
In the second half, PC used a 15-3 run to go ahead for good. Coleman didn’t register his first field goal until 6:14 remaining on his way to finishing 1-of-5 from the floor with three points.
As much as what he saw Tuesday night pained him, Cooley knows he has to remain patient.
“You can’t overreact. Coming here, we knew it’s a process and I have to be more patient with myself and educate our guys on what it is to win,” Cooley said.
Added Coleman, “We’ve got to regroup and come back with a better effort. There are plenty of things we need to tighten up, but as a team we’ll be fine."