PROVIDENCE — Whenever a new face enters into the Providence College vs. URI discussion, it seems appropriate to inquire as to whether said participant understands the hubbub surrounding this annual intrastate hoops encounter.
In Dan Hurley’s case, Rhody’s first-year coach requires no introduction to rivalry games. When he played at Seton Hall in the early ‘90s, Hurley considered Syracuse, Georgetown and St. John’s among the Pirates’ chief competition. Hurley also felt the heat whenever older brother and Rams assistant coach Bobby took the floor with Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and the rest of his Duke teammates against North Carolina – arguably college basketball’s most intense rivalry.
Told what separates PC-URI from Duke-North Carolina or Seton Hall-St. John’s is that it’s a non-conference encounter that seemingly stretches beyond how the players fare and what the final score reads, Dan Hurley spoke in terms that makes one believe he has a firm grasp of what’s in store come Thursday night at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
“We have close to 50,000 living alumni in the state and Providence obviously has tremendous support,” said Hurley. “I got the vibe from fans [regarding the spice surrounding the state’s most important annual sporting event] back in April. Obviously it’s a game that’s important to the state, one featuring two teams that are going to play with a lot of intensity.
“A lot of stuff goes out the window when you play rivals,” Hurley continued.
Perhaps the most central figure in Hurley’s camp as far as the electricity surrounding the Friars and Rams meeting on the hardwood is Preston Murphy. As a URI player from 1995-99, Murphy has four games to draw upon, particularly the fond memories that accompanied Rhode Island defeating Providence during his sophomore and junior years.
“Everyone in this state has a horse in the race,” remarked Murphy, the onetime boys’ basketball coach at Woonsocket High School. “During my junior year [1997-98], we played a lot of our games at the (then-named Providence) Civic Center, so it was almost like a shared facility. From the standpoint of having the home-court advantage, you may have more Rhody fans down in front and more visible, so that was always good.”
If you’re a coach at Providence, you’re gearing up your players to face URI’s Xavier Munford, Nikola Malesevic, Andre Malone and Mike Powell. Likewise with Rams’ coaches, the focus is on key Friar contributors LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts while wondering if Bryce Cotton’s knee will cooperate and allow Providence’s leading scorer to suit up.
As Murphy pointed out, there’s another factor for coaches and players alike to keep in mind. While the Friars and Rams have each been tested in varying degrees thus far in non-conference play, neither side has played inside a building where sparks bounce off the walls and just about every seat is accounted for.
“We’ve played against some high-level teams, and I think that definitely helps us heading into PC,” affirmed Murphy.
Added Hurley, “We played at Auburn but that wasn’t a raucous crowd. We’ve played neutral site games at Mohegan Sun against Ohio State and Seton Hall, but (going to The Dunk) will be a true road game. You hope that will bring out the best in your guys.”
While Hurley will go through his PC vs. URI baptism-by-fire for the first time come Thursday, his coaching counterpart on the Friars’ bench has had the fortune of having grown up around these parts and coached on both sides. To Ed Cooley, what stands out is that PC-URI always seems to bring out the very best in the participants.
“It’s a game that’s been played before us and will be played after us, which is why it’s significant to the state and why we’ll approach it as any other game with the understanding that there’s a lot of importance on it,” said Cooley, who was a Rhody assistant coach in 1996-97. “The game coaches itself.”