It’s that time of year ladies and gents! The weather is getting colder, bright lights have been strung across rooftops, and BIG EAST basketball fans tirelessly await the arrival of none other than conference play! And oh boy, the scheduling committee did not disappoint this year, as the Providence Friars will open conference play traveling to Hartford, Connecticut, to take on their recently renewed conference rivals, the UConn Huskies.
This historic rivalry has taken on a new layer as of recent, with Dan Hurley now in his fourth year leading the Huskies as head coach. For those un-aware, Hurley last served as head coach of the Rhode Island Rams prior to moving to Storrs. While with his previous employer, Hurley posted a modest 1-6 record against Cooley in the esteemed Providence/Rhode Island rivalry game that occurs every December. Now, the two coaches have the pleasure of coaching against one another, in yet another rivalry game that gets played not once, but twice a season – with much more on the line.
Hurley wasted no time making up some ground for his stint at Rhode Island, splitting with Ed Cooley’s Friars last season. The Friars took the first matchup in Providence, beating a James Bouknight-less UConn squad, and the Huskies took the second matchup in Storrs, with Bouknight playing a major role in that one. But that was last season. James Bouknight is no longer in the BIG EAST, and neither is Providence’s former star, David Duke. The slate has been cleaned, and what better way to re-start than with a BIG EAST conference opening weekend matchup?
The Huskies come into this one ranked 20th in the nation, boasting a 9-2 record. The team’s best win is an OT thriller over Auburn, who was ranked 19th at the time. The team’s two losses come from Michigan State on a neutral floor, and from former BIG EAST foe, West Virginia, on the road. Otherwise, the Huskies have done what they were expected to do and cleaned house, appropriately corresponding to their projected second place finish in the conference.
The Friars, on the other hand, have been quite the surprise for many BIG EAST fans this season. Picked to finish seventh in the conference, the Friars boast the best record heading into conference play, 10-1, and are tied with Xavier for the most Quad-1 wins (3) in the conference (and the country, mind you). Now, none of this actually matters until the second weekend in March, when all the teams are aggregated to Midtown Manhattan, but it is still noteworthy that the Friars - to this point in the season - have exceeded many pre-season expectations.
So where does that leave us for Saturday? Expect a gritty, physical, low-scoring, defensive war, that will be decided, realistically, by who wants it more.
For the hosts, expect a healthy dose of 6’9” forwards, Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley. The status of the team’s second leading scorer, Adama Sanogo, remains a mystery, however signs are pointing that the 6’9” forward could make a return for this weekend’s matchup. If Sanogo is healthy, the Huskies will have four different players that are 6’9” eligible to play (the three mentioned, plus Akok Akok). If this is the case, then the under-sized Friars will certainly have their work cut out for them, especially on the glass.
For the visitors, the big boys down low need to be flawless. Nate Watson, when appropriately fed in the paint, is one of the toughest big men to guard in the country. He’s currently shooting at a 64.3% clip and holds the height advantage over every player on the floor for both teams (6’10”). If the Friars want to be successful, Nate Watson is going to have to perform at his very best. The same goes for Noah Horchler, who just notched his fourth double-double of the season against Central Connecticut last Saturday. The sixth-year stretch forward has been the team’s glue guy and should play a very important role cleaning the glass for the Friars this weekend. Expect South Carolina transfer, Justin Minaya, to provide some serious defensive value as well on the wing.
In the backcourt, the match-up between UConn’s R.J. Cole and Providence’s Al Durham is certainly one to keep an eye on. Cole leads the Huskies in scoring, averaging sixteen points per game, shooting at a near 40% clip. In Bouknight’s absence last season, Cole rose to the occasion, and served as a very important piece to this UConn squad, especially during conference play. On the flip side, Al Durham certainly hasn’t been shy about showing Friar fans his clutch gene. He hit some killer three’s late on the road against Wisconsin, and he put the team on his back in a tight win over Texas Tech. Durham was likely recruited to replace David Duke and has filled the role quite nicely, taking full ownership of the combo-guard position. Durham will be an important piece for the Friars, who are still missing starting point guard, Jared Bynum, who’s status (like Sanogo) remains mystery for Saturday.
All in all, this one is going to be fun to watch. A historical rivalry renewed, with an added flare of two New England coaches who share mutual respect, but also can’t stand one another. Mix in a slew of big men banging around in the paint, and you’ve got yourself a classic rock fight of a BIG EAST battle.
This one is going to be good, so you’re not going to want to miss it. You can catch the game at 5:00PM on Saturday, broadcasted nationally on FOX, or you can stream the game on Fox Sports Go.