SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Ed Cooley has a grand vision for the state’s annual college basketball passion play – Providence versus Rhode Island.
“My goal is to get this game on CBS on a Sunday or Saturday afternoon,” proclaimed the Friars’ head coach. “When you do that, you know that both programs are getting there. Take nothing away from the other channels, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to anybody, but when you’re talking about trying to nationally brand your two schools, I think that’s our ultimate goal.”
You have to crawl before you can walk. Before the Friars and Rams can reach the point of re-branding a contest that is already held in high esteem and regard within state boundaries into one of coast-to-coast prominence, it’s imperative that both programs carve out a niche that boils down to this: winning and doing so on a consistent basis.
As far as the present-day circumstances surrounding PC and URI heading into Thursday night’s intrastate get-together at the Ryan Center, there is a noteworthy twist that falls in line with Cooley’s aspirations. For the first time since 1992, national eyes will be privy to the Ocean State’s marquee collegiate sporting event.
The game will air on CBS Sports Network and feature the color commentary of former Providence head coach Pete Gillen.
“We heard back in the summertime that this was a good possibility,” stated Rhode Island Athletic Director Thorr Bjorn.
You could probably come up with a laundry list of reasons why it’s been two-plus decades since Providence and Rhode Island have been televised on national TV. Since tangling that December 1992 day at the then-Providence Civic Center with ESPN’s cameras rolling, the two sides have resided in mainly opposite stratospheres. When the Friars were up, chances are the Rams were down, with the opposite also holding true.
Who knows to what extent the inconsistencies that have hovered over Providence and Rhode Island played a hand in this backyard meeting on the hardwood being televised to a limited audience for the longest time. Yet with Cooley now in his third year with the Friars and Dan Hurley in his second steering the Rams, the national perception of both programs is one that clearly speaks volumes about the groundwork each coach has laid in a relatively short amount of time.
“The game has a tremendous amount of appeal. Both programs are clearly on the rise and feature dynamic coaches. They are starting to recruit more on a national level and there’s going to be some dynamic players on the court come Thursday night,” stated Dan Weinberg, senior vice president of programming at CBS. “We looked at those elements plus the in-state rivalry aspect of it and thought to ourselves ‘That’s an entertaining game, a fun game that we would like to wrap our arms around.’
“It’s a game that definitely checked a few different boxes,” he added.
Added Bjorn, “What coach Cooley has done at PC over the last few years has certainly been monumental, and I think what coach Hurley is doing at URI is sort of on the same path.”
Weinberg touched upon the relationships that CBS has with the Big East and Atlantic 10 and how they played a substantial hand in earmarking the Friars and Rams with a national TV date.
“We’ve obviously been a partner of the Atlantic 10 for quite some time; we just extended our deal and are doing more A-10 games than ever before. We’re in the first year with a deal with the Big East and we’ll have a tremendous Big East presence on the air as well,” Weinberg said. “These are two teams within those respective conferences that look to be on the rise. You factor in all those things and say, ‘That’s a game worth looking at.’”
Including Thursday’s sold-out PC-URI contest, there are five Rhody men’s basketball games at the Ryan Center that will air before a national television audience.
“When you think about students and the idea that they get to be on TV and act a little crazy at times, it makes for a fun environment,” said Bjorn.
Much has changed personnel-wise for the Friars and Rams since the schools unveiled their schedules in early September. PC closes out the first-semester portion with a makeshift backcourt rotation that has gone through attrition due to players either being injured (Kris Dunn) or suspended (Brandon Austin).
“We’re really in a similar spot when we played URI last year. We didn’t have (Vincent) Council or Dunn,” Cooley said. “We’re learning to play hurt. We’re injured right now, but we’re hoping to get to the finish line because we have a 12-day break (for semester exams) coming up.”
Rhode Island has played nine games to date, none of which have included sophomore forward Jordan Hare, who announced that he planned to take a leave of absence from the team right before the season tipped off. Another key frontcourt piece is sophomore Mike Aaman, who figures to miss his fifth straight game Thursday after having an appendectomy following Rhody’s 87-59 loss at Arizona two weeks ago.
Regardless of who’s available and who’s not, the fact that CBS elected to take strong interest in PC-URI only figures to add even more sugar and spice and should help make the lights at the Ryan Center shine a little brighter for Thursday’s (8 p.m.) renewal of the series.
“These types of regional rivalries make college sports and in particular college basketball so unique, so much fun and so entertaining. The passion comes from games like this,” said Weinberg. “It’s great that we can showcase it.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03