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Providence College Hockey and Basketball Grapple with Rebuilding Years

Both teams lost some key players to the pros, but they're taking this new season head on

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It may be true, as St. Francis of Assisi said, that “true progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice,” but the Providence College Friars’ basketball and hockey teams have clearly sauntered into the spotlight in recent years. The Friars basketball team won its first NCAA March Madness game in decades last season, while PC hockey is a year removed from their stirring run to the Frozen Four championship, and just off their second-best record ever and a share of the Hockey East regular-season title. Suffice it to say, times are good in Friartown.

Success breeds expectations, however, and for PC coaches Ed Cooley and Nate Leaman, who have both enjoyed steady growth and progress in their Division I programs over a half-decade plus, the 2016-17 season presents a unique challenge in their PC experience: how to maintain the standard of excellence they’ve established while grappling with the realities of a rebuilding year.

Big Sneakers to Fill
For Friars hoops coach Cooley, there’s the reality that Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil will be suiting up in the NBA and not for him this season. He’ll be reliant not on obvious superstars but rather on promising players like junior Kyron Cartwright and senior Rodney Bullock, who last spring put home the last-second shot against USC that gave the Friars their first NCAA tournament win since the 1996-97 season. Highly regarded but untested freshmen guard Alpha Diallo and forward Kalif Young will also be called upon to contribute early in their college careers.

Cooley says that while “our goal is always to be a tournament team,” the personnel losses can’t be ignored. “We’ve got a bunch of new guys and unproven guys,” he says, with players like Cartwright, Bullock and junior guard Isiah Jackson – a transfer from George Mason University – among those who will “now have to come in and carry the load.”

“[Cartwright] is going to have to run the show,” he says. “His role will change, and he’s going to have to be a leader on and off the floor.” Bullock, for his part, will need to step out of the background and become more of a focal point of the offense, Cooley adds.
“We’re in uncharted waters in terms of expectations,” coming off three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, acknowledges Cooley, stressing that, nonetheless, “We have the culture to position ourselves to be successful.”

On the one hand, prognosticators don’t expect much from this team: the Friars were picked to finish ninth in the ten-team Big East in the annual preseason coaches poll. On the other, says Cooley, “We’re an established program; with the recent success that we’ve had, we’re putting 11,000 people a night into the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, and they expect us to be good.”

Bill Koch, who covers college basketball for the Providence Journal, says the overall strength of the Big East – led by defending national champion Villanova – makes it hard for a rising program like PC’s to produce a winning conference record in a year like this. Unlike the powerhouses that make the NCAA tournament year after year, “It’s hard for PC to reload – they have to rebuild.” The attention that Dunn is getting in the NBA, along with a new practice facility slated to open in 2017, will help recruiting, says Koch, but in terms of long-term sustainability PC simply isn’t at the level of a Villanova or Xavier quite yet.

The Thanksgiving weekend Coastal Classic will be an early test for PC, says Koch, starting with a neutral-court game against Memphis. A post-holiday stretch of six non-conference games at home – including the annual matchup against URI – will be a good indicator of the team’s direction, especially games like the home tilt against New Hampshire on November 30. “They’re more talented than that team and will be expected to win – that will be a good opportunity for this team to learn something about themselves,” says Koch.

“The basement for this team is a .500 record overall,” he adds. “The top is making the NCAA tournament with 20 or 21 wins overall, and going 9-9 or 10-8 in the Big East, with maybe a tournament win in New York,” says Koch. “When you look at PC and at [Cooley’s] character, how strong and inspirational he is, I don’t see them bottoming out. He’s a big personality, in total control of his players, and has the ambition a program like PC needs.”

Young Guns on the Ice
When it comes to losing key contributors, PC hockey coach Nate Leaman can certainly feel Cooley’s pain: missing from his 2016-17 roster are his three top scorers from last season. In fact, his top returning goal-scorer isn’t even a forward, but rather standout junior defenseman Jake Walman, who netted 14 goals in an injury-shortened season last year.

A first-round double-overtime loss foiled the team’s attempt to repeat as national champions in 2015-16, but the team still raced out to a 19-0 start and entered the new season ranked tenth nationally. That optimistic outlook from outside Schneider Arena belies the fact that Leaman’s team is replacing nine seniors with freshmen this season, and has only five players who even dressed during the Frozen Four tournament in 2014-15. Moreover, the team suffered the surprise loss of standout goaltender Nick Ellis to the NHL draft and is starting the season with sophomore Hayden Hawkey between the pipes.

“They’re not the team they were last year or the year before,” says Mark Divver, who covers PC hockey for the Providence Journal. “They’re breaking in some young players, but I think by the end of the season they will be a dangerous team – not a team you’d want to play in the Hockey East tournament.”

An early season loss to Holy Cross highlighted the major concern about this year’s team: a lack of scoring punch. “All three of our first games I think we outplayed our opponent,” says Leaman. “We’re not finishing our chances, which is typical with a young team… I think we can play fast; can we score is still to be determined.”

The players who graduated last fall were Leaman’s first recruiting class – a group that experienced the steady growth that the PC hockey program has enjoyed since the former Union College coach came onboard. “Now, we’re at the same place we were five years ago, except that expectations are such that every mistake or hiccup is scrutinized,” says Leaman. “Usually, freshmen come in with enough talent around them that when they have an off night, it’s not really recognizable. For this class, the situation is more sink-or-swim: when they have an off night, it hurts the team.”

Leaman says the talent of his team is undeniable: “the key is getting them to be grittier.” Part of that is simply learning how to play hockey at the college level, and it’s here that the championship experience of players like senior captain Josh Monk will be invaluable. “Monk is not a player who brings you out of your seat with his skill, but he’s a very dependable player who gives his all on every play,” says Divver. Assistant captains Walman, junior forward Brian Pinho and senior blueliner Kyle McKenzie will also be key to maximizing this group’s potential. “Those guys know what it takes to bring that consistent level of intensity every night,” says Leaman.

Stepping up this season will be Erik Foley, who skated on the team’s top line with two seniors last year but will now be expected to lead with a sophomore and junior on his wings. Forward Kasper Björkqvist, who played in the World Juniors but is coming off an injury, will be a key contributor on both the power play and penalty-killing units. Like Björkqvist, freshman forward Brandon Duhamine is a high NHL draft pick who comes into Schneider Arena with an impressive pedigree and high expectations.

Walman’s decision to forgo the pro draft and return to PC for his junior year is a huge boost for this young team, even as he works his way back from a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery last spring. Rhode Island fans will also be paying close attention to East Providence wingman Bryan Lemos, who moves up to the second line this season for PC, and freshman Shane Kavanagh, a hard worker who has had to work through the recent loss of his mother to cancer and is expected to contribute to Leaman’s penalty-killing unit. Freshman Josh Wilkins, a native of Raleigh, NC, has been an early season surprise, notching three assists in the team’s season opener against Miami University.

A 20-win season certainly isn’t out of the question for this team, and while they’ll be a long shot to make the NCAA tournament, the PC hockey squad seems well-positioned to continue to contend for the Hockey East conference title, where they’ve finished in the top four in four of the last five seasons.

“We’re young,” says Leaman. “I don’t know if we have the team to meet those expectations right now, but I think by the end of the year we will be there. It’s exciting to have so much potential for growth.”