After finishing the second half of their 2013 campaign with a 7-2 record, the Friars finished .500 in conference and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT, where they lost a hard-fought contest to the Baylor Bears. It was more than what was expected of this team and left the fans feeling rejuvenated and ready for the next season to come. There was a restored belief in what the Friars could do, and as changes took place all around the Friars, the 2013-2014 story had already started being written. The headline of that story? Opportunity for a new image in a new conference.
This year's Friars squad is already special for that reason. It's not just a talented team, it's a team that can help finish turning the corner and completely rebrand the Friars. The opportunity is there, and the momentum from last season and the recruiting efforts are all in place. Now this team has to do what Ed Cooley was hired to do: win big.
In about three days' time, the Providence College Friars will take the floor against the Boston College Eagles. Three days will be here sooner than the fans could pray for, and that means it's time to take a long, hard look at this year's Friar team and everything surrounding it.
1) From Unlikely to Leaders: Fittingly, the lead off to any discussion revolving this year's team starts with the leadership roles that seniors Kadeem Batts and Bryce Cotton must assume. But, while the discussion will often lead off with their expectations, taking a look back at these two players can be just as important.
For Bryce Cotton, his beginnings with the Friars team seemed like a patch to cover a bigger issue. Recruited under Keno Davis, Bryce Cotton signed with the Friars on August 29th, 2010, to play for the 2010-2011 season. At the time, despite receiving interest from other programs, Cotton still had not gotten any opportunities to sign with a school. Early on there were doubts about Cotton's ability to compete in the Big East with both his height and defensive abilities coming into question at times. However, Cotton's work ethic, combined with Ed Cooley's mentorship, resulted in Cotton quickly rising in both his importance to the team as well as his popularity with fans. His determination and level-headed approach guided him into a leadership role on the team.
Kadeem Batts, meanwhile, had already been with the team for a year when Bryce Cotton first came aboard. Seen as an important piece to Keno Davis' recruiting efforts, Kadeem was put on redshirt his freshman year to allow him to develop. When he did take the floor, he struggled against more dominant opponents, and would have limited contributions on the glass and from the field. Furthermore, the off-court issues surrounding the team were starting to catch up with Batts. Ed Cooley helped keep Batts on a good track, although it didn't seem that way for Batts at first when he missed the first 11 games of his junior year. Batts returned, and early on was surprising fans with his performances, including an impressive 27 points and 10 rebounds against a highly ranked Louisville team. However, this game was an exception and not the rule to his season. In his redshirt junior year Batts impressed against lower levels of competition. While many expected his performance to slow once the Big East schedule got underway, they were pleasantly surprised to see Kadeem continue to do what he does best - score in the paint and polish off the glass. He became so consistently talented on both ends of the floor that fans felt a general concern that Batts would flee early for the NBA. He announced on Twitter that he would stay for his senior year, becoming a vital piece both to the frontcourt and the leadership of this team.
When these two take the court this year they will be looked upon for their talent and leadership, but it should be with the recognition of how hard these two have worked to achieve that. They exemplify what the Friars are about - bringing out the best in the players that want it brought out of them, and creating leaders on the court. That alone is more than enough to make this year special, but there's so much more.
2) Growing Fast: Just as Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts grew into leadership roles over the past four years, this year fans will be treated to witnessing the growth of two leaders-in-the-making with LaDontae Henton and Kris Dunn. Henton, a junior, has had his ups and downs thus far as a Friar. His freshman season showed how dominant he could be early on, and his performances earned him a spot on the Big East All-Rookie team, but his sophomore year had him see a slump that left many fans concerned about what this would mean for his future. Henton seems to be entering the season with a renewed vigor however, and will be working towards developing himself into a leader of the team. Meanwhile Dunn, who will be a sophomore this season, was one of Ed Cooley's prized recruits early on but didn't see the floor for almost the entire first half of his freshman season due to a shoulder injury. He played much of his freshman year at less than full strength, inhibiting his game at times. However, there was no questioning his talent for the game, and that talent combined with his charisma and motivation to outdo himself every game will mean this upcoming Friar will likely work in tandem with Cotton on leading this team – provided that he is able to overcome the injury to his shoulder that he suffered against RIC.
3) New Faces: Providence gains four new faces this season. Coming in as freshmen, Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock will be the youngest players on a deep roster, but both will have significant roles to play. Austin, a top-100 player out of high school, has already generated a wealth of buzz for his diverse skillset and his ability to play the one, two and three. Many have Austin in talks for Big East Rookie of the Year. Bullock, meanwhile, will look to surprise as an important piece for the Friar frontcourt.
In addition to the freshman, incoming ACC transfers Tyler Harris and Carson Desrosiers will be looking to bolster the Friars into the top of the Big East. Desrosiers, a seven foot center, will be able to help free up Kadeem Batts from the five and allow the team to truly 'go big' in their lineup. Harris, meanwhile, has been reported as a truly special player for his skills on offense, but will need to make sure he contributes on defense to help make the most of his minutes.
4) Accountability: A deep roster for this years' Friars squad, after several seasons lacking true depth, is a welcomed change. But the benefit of a deeper bench comes in the form of putting players on it when they make mistakes on the court. Too often in the past have the Friars have seen defensive lapses and offensive errors, only for the player to remain on the court and continue to make them, sometimes costing the Friars the game. With a deeper bench Ed Cooley now has the ability to take out a player who might be struggling on the floor and use the opportunity as a teaching lesson - without risking anything on the court.
5) First Impressions: In their first Big East season in 1979 the Providence Friars came in at the bottom of the conference standings with an 0-6 record. While one season doesn't make or break a team, and the Friars saw plenty of success before and after that season, the storyline of the old Big East foes was always "the Friars are David and they're playing against Goliath's." This season, however, the Friars have a chance to reintroduce themselves to the college basketball world as a team that's impossible to avoid talking about when discussing programs in contention for an NCAA bid or league championship.
With a reinvented Big East comes the opportunity for every team in the league - old and new - to redefine themselves. Providence has been on that train early by establishing itself on the recruiting trail, resulting in many experts to associate Providence with the term "program on the rise," but there's more to be had. With the new Big East, Providence can make an early impact on their image and establish themselves as a dominant team in the league, which will only help team culture and fandom. Look for the Friars to do everything in their power to seize this opportunity, which will result in great college basketball being displayed.
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