As another successful NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament comes to a close, fans have been treated with last-second shots, final glimpses of NBA-bound stars, and Cinderella stories like the University of South Carolina and their run to the Final Four as a seven seed. Duke, a perennial tournament contender was ousted early. Villanova, the defending champions, bowed out in the second round. The Final Four consists of two teams that had never made it this far, South Carolina and Gonzaga, along with 3 seed Oregon and perennial powerhouse North Carolina. Caught up in the whirlwind of the tournament was perhaps the most consequential return of two teams to the tournament for Rhode Islanders and fans of college basketball like myself: The Providence College Friars and the University of Rhode Island Rams.
The rivalry itself means a lot for the state; PC and URI are the two biggest schools in the state and have the most loyal followings. URI, the major state school located in the southern part of the state, plays at the Ryan Center, while Providence College, a Catholic institution, plays in the Dunkin Donuts Center in the heart of downtown Providence. The two schools represent different identities within the small state. Both compete for many of the same recruits, but the two schools have objectively different basketball and school identities.
The two teams have faced off since 1920, long before the days of college basketball players announcing their commitments via Twitter, or snapchatting their coach’s post-game talk. The teams met twice a year from 1935-1980, playing one game at each school. The matchup, for the most part, went back and forth, with no team dominating the other. The rivalry began to take a bigger stage in the 1970s, as the opening of the Providence Civic Center (now the Dunkin Donuts Center) and the Ryan Center provided bigger venues for the two schools to play. The two teams were always in competition; one of the main reasons that URI built the Ryan Center was in response to the construction of the Civic Center. URI wanted to make sure they could attract top-caliber teams to the school in Kingston. Following that, in 1979, PC Director of Athletics Dave Gavitt founded the now-famous Big East Conference and left the University of Rhode Island out of the mix. The original members of the conference included Providence, Georgetown, Syracuse, Boston College, St. John’s, UConn, Rutgers, and Seton Hall, famously leaving out URI, a perennial New England basketball powerhouse. Many college basketball writers point to the recruitment of Sly Williams, who de-committed from PC to sign with URI as the tipping point for Gavitt leaving URI out of the Big East. He was one of the best recruits in the country in 1976, and his decommitment brought a new dimension to the rivalry.
At the time, Gavitt said to the Providence Journal, “What happened is we went through the whole Sly Williams thing and the fans really got out of hand. The atmosphere was unhealthy, a lot of verbal stuff in the stands we hadn’t had before. It wasn’t a lot of fun for the players at either school.”
At this point, the two schools decided that playing twice a year was not possible anymore, and the Friars did not return to play in Kingston until 2003.
Flash forward to 2017; the URI Rams and the PC Friars appeared in the NCAA Tournament for the first time together since 1997. In that year, the two teams were in the same region, and Providence College made a run to the Elite Eight before losing to the Arizona Wildcats. The 8 seed Rams fell in the first round to Purdue. This year, the Friars were thought to be in a rebuilding period following the loss of both Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil to the NBA draft. The Friars finished tied for third in the newly revamped Big East Conference and received the 11 seed. The University of Rhode Island met expectations, finishing third in the Atlantic Ten Conference, also receiving an 11 seed. Both teams are coached by energetic and respected men, Ed Cooley for the Friars, and Dan Hurley (the son of Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Hurley) for the Rams. While the Friars ended up losing a heartbreaker to the University of Southern California in a First Four game, the University of Rhode Island beat Creighton, and narrowly lost to the 3 seed, Oregon. While both teams ended up losing early on, the college basketball world was treated to the return of both Providence College and the University of Rhode Island for the first time in twenty years.
A lot has changed since 1997; Donald Trump has replaced Bill Clinton as President, smartphones have put landlines into irrelevancy, but the constant rivalry between the two biggest teams in Rhode Island stayed the same. The two teams have officially returned to college basketball relevancy, and the future couldn’t be brighter for the sport in the state of Rhode Island.