New Season - New Expectations

With so many different potential headlines after the exhibition opener, I was surprised to find how much attention was given to freshman Ray Hall after a solid, but unspectacular debut. Was he getting all of this coverage because a player of his size is so rare at Providence? Were people seeing him as a potential Big East star? Is he someone who can be expected to step in this year?

It just wasn't making sense, until I came up with the best reasoning I could. More than anything, Big Ray represents what Friar fans hope will be an identity starting to build under Tim Welsh teams. Hall ran hard, lunged to save balls from going out of bounds, and got fired up after big plays. It was a tone established by young players a year ago. The attitude and style of play of last year's freshman class marked a conscious effort from Welsh to not only bring in talented players, but guys who can both play and accept a role.

Welsh's Friar teams have gone through an identity crisis. The Donta Wade/David Murray recruiting class was a disaster. The Prime Time incident cast off kids with character issues, and the ones that stuck around (Abdul Mills and Rome Augustine) were hampered throughout their careers by injuries. Prime Time provided an enormous PR hit for the College and Welsh made the decision to go with high character kids in the following recruiting class, with great early results.

The class of Maris Laksa, Chris Anrin, Marcus Douthit, and Sheiku Kabba all contributed in year 1 on an NCAA tournament team. This class was limited though. Laksa and Anrin did not progress beyond being the spot up shooters off of the bench and Kabba brought toughness and hit some big shots, but could not penetrate or create for his teammates. While he continued to bring in some high character kids (Ryan Gomes, Donnie McGrath, Tuukka Kotti) he took some chances that blew up and set this program back a few years.

Heading into Year 9 of the Tim Welsh era, the formula should be clear: high character kids who can accept a role and, equally as important, can handle the physical nature of the Big East. Kotti and Anrin were good kids, but could not handle the style of play in the Big East. Rob Sanders and Dwight Brewington were gifted athletically, but had higher opinions of themselves than everyone else did. Sharaud Curry and Geoff McDermott are the perfect mix of the two. Not every kid is going to be a Curry or McDermott, most won't, but solid, four year players like Weyinmi Efejuku are well within PC's range.

So where are we after eight up and down years under Welsh? This team has the talent to make the NCAA tournament this year, but they have not gone through that year in which it hits them that they can win at this level as the Friars did during the second half of Gomes' sophomore year. Not every team has that coming-of-age transition season (see PC in 2001 coming off of one of the worst teams in Providence history). This team may not need that type of year.

This is not a young team. They have all conference talent at point guard and power forward, two 22 year old centers (assuming Randall Hanke plays this year), and two kids who logged big minutes a year ago on the wings. Seems like enough experience to me.

There has not been a more important year for Tim Welsh. He has a solid core returning from a year ago, allowing this year's freshman class to ease their way onto the court. After two seasons of missing the postseason completely, it is easy to overlook the fact that Welsh is sitting on a sleeping giant.

The maturation process of the Curry/McDermott class coincides with a dramatic upgrade in facilities. This team has the talent to make the NCAA tournament this year and should only get better as last year's freshmen progress. Combine multiple tournament appearances with 60 million dollar enhancements to your home arena, and all new facilities on campus and this program could have Rhode Island buzzing again. Welsh now has everything he has asked for at Providence: a long term contract, improving facilities, commitment from the administration and a solid core to grow with.

Providence has been called one of the toughest jobs in America, but it looks like a pretty good situation from here.

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