By Mary Paoletti
PROVIDENCE -- Once again, Providence College is surprising people.
When the Friars hosted the Huskies on Wednesday, they also hosted a hoard of media, 11,137 fans, and plenty of expectations. Connecticut, after all, was playing inspired basketball.
Head coach Jim Calhoun was continuing his leave to "address some medical issues" for the third straight game. In the meantime, his team was winning -- and winning big.
UConn sauntered into the Dunkin' Donuts Center just days after knocking off the No. 1 Texas Longhorns. It was the biggest conceivable win for the up-and-down Huskies. Beating Texas bolstered their resume, gave them their swagger back, and launched them back into the much coveted top-25.
For Providence, it only made the target on UConn's back that much bigger.
That night the Friars stole the show. They out-muscled Connecticut on the glass, they shredded its defense, and they summoned both composure and intensity where UConn could not. As the buzzer sounded, fans poured over the Center's seats and thundered onto the hardwood in a rush to reach their team.
Final score from Providence: PC 81, UC 66.
"We were ready for this game," said freshman guard Vincent Council. "We know we can play with anyone; it's just a matter of going out there and playing hard and playing our game."
So to what degree was this really an upset?
Although UConn took its season further than Providence in all but one of the years in question, the Friars have beaten the Huskies 6 times in their last 10 meetings. Wednesday's win was the fourth for PC in five games. Connecticut was also visiting Rhode Island without having posted a single conference win on the road.
And it looked like UConn thought it proved all it needed to by beating the Longhorns over the weekend. PC, however, had a sizable chip on its shoulder from Saturday. First came the heart-breaking 109-105 overtime home loss to South Florida. It was an ugly ending, with the Bulls overcoming a 12-point deficit in the last two minutes to force OT.
Yet the fallout was worse. Coach Keno Davis, unhappy with his team's performance, publicly criticized his players.
"We don't have players who are able to stop one-on-one dribble penetration," Davis told the media. "We have some guys who are very good scorers that are big weak spots for us defensively."
The remarks drew criticism of their own for being thought harsh and Davis wasted little time personally accepting responsibility for the loss. What he did not do was backtrack. "I don't regret anything I said because we need players who are motivated to improve," he stated.
Clearly, something clicked.
Shutting down UConn's attempts at a comeback so completely gave the PC coach unbridled confidence. In the postgame he asserted that the victory was no fluke, stating that his Friars could beat any team in the country. Davis will get the chance to test that theory in the coming weeks. Six of Providence's next eight Big East games will be against nationally ranked teams: No. 4 Syracuse, No. 3 Villanova, No. 9 West Virginia, and No. 11 Georgetown. Can Providence compete with the upper half of the conference?
They have at least exceeded preseason expectations. In a late October coaches poll, 52 points put Providence at an estimated 13th-place finish in the Big East. A 4-4 record has the Friars locked into the middle of the pack with Notre Dame and Cincinnati.
With a 6-foot-8 center, the Friars are small compared to the bruisers in the Big East. They're also inexperienced. The roster this season is stocked with freshman as only three returning players from 2008-09 actually scored a point.
But sometimes small can work. It did against UConn. Providence actually out-rebounded the Huskies 53-38, something that Calhoun's second-in-command, George Blaney, said "never happens." PC also managed to score more points in the paint (44-32) by spreading their offense and attacking the gaps.
On the other hand, inexperience is what caused the Friars to fall to South Florida. A missed dunk by Jamine Peterson was the first thread pulled in their unraveling. A Marshon Brooks turnover followed, and a couple of Vincent Council misses from the charity stripe failed to protect the lead. Add in a trepid defense that's afraid to foul and sloppy, rushed passing, and it's not hard to imagine that Syracuse or Villanova could rip Providence to shreds.
No matter what happens, Keno Davis is hanging on to his trademark hard-line optimism. And one would be wise to keep an eye on PC in the coming weeks.
They might surprise you again.