On March 9, 2013, UConn played under the Big East banner for the last time. Though the postseason was set to begin days later, the Huskies would get no last trip to Madison Square Garden, nor would they get a bid to any postseason tournament. Their season was ending there, in Gampel Pavilion, along with their time in the Big East. And their last game in the Big East? That was an overtime win against another founding member of the conference. A rival of theirs. A team from a school just up the road a bit in Rhode Island.
To say UConn and Providence have had wildly different levels of success in college basketball since the late 90s is one heck of an understatement. And yet, despite the peaks and valleys, a lively rivalry continued between these two New England schools.
— BIG EAST Conference (@BIGEAST) June 27, 2019
The PC-UConn rivalry faded when the schools went to separate conferences, as they never played each other after the split (except for that one exhibition, but that doesn’t count). While entire Providence College student classes saw a new wave of success come through the Dunk for their team, they never experienced the Friars-Huskies rivalry.
With the Huskies returning to the Big East, however, a new era of the rivalry is upon us. Veteran vans of the program will once again bear witness to those heated matchups, and newer fans will experience a rivalry with an intensity that differs from that of other matchups.
And, arguably, this latest incarnation could be the deepest, most exciting iteration of the rivalry yet. Let’s talk about that.
1. An Even Playing Field
The Big East that UConn returns to is not the same one it left. For the particulars of the rivalry, Providence is no longer a middle-of-the-pack team, but usually a top half that can punch it’s way through the regular season and surprise in the Big East Tournament. Before the split, Providence might have surprised UConn with a win over them, the Huskies may now find themselves contending head-to-head with the Friars for coveted Big East Tournament seeding positions while also looking to take the regular season crown away from teams like Villanova.
This may come as a shock to UConn fans, but that shock doesn’t make it less true. Ed Cooley has found his footing and groove in the Big East from recruiting and coaching to curating a strong culture and winning. The Friars are now a respected name in the conference, and, though there’s still plenty of ground left to cover, Cooley has done a tremendous job and the results speak for themselves. These two teams are on a more even playing field than they have been in the past 20 years, and that creates nothing but excitement for the revitalization of this rivalry.
The addition of the UConn men’s basketball program will strengthen our league. Anytime you can add a program that has won four national titles since 1999 its going to bring a lot of benefits. – Ed Cooley pic.twitter.com/HONG2VN9oJ
— PC Men’s Basketball (@PCFriarsmbb) June 27, 2019
2. Coaching Clashes
You didn’t think I’d write this without touching on one of the best aspects of this new chapter in the rivalry, did you? Previously, UConn had employed one coach, the man who built the program, Jim Calhoun, while Providence cycled through a group of coaches who had varying degrees of success. While it was fun to see Calhoun go off at points about Providence, the Providence coaches never really had their own storyline in the rivalry.
Not so anymore. When the Huskies return to the Dunk in a few years, they’re bringing with them a face all of Rhode Island college basketball is familiar with: Danny Hurley. Hurley and Cooley are no strangers to coaching against one another, having done so in big rivalry games between the Friars and their in-state foes, URI, during Hurley’s six seasons with the rams. The two have certainly led many close games featuring their share of sideline encounters between the coaches. What I should mention is how interesting their journeys have been – not to mention parallel. Both arrived at schools with basketball programs that had been struggling for some time, and each brought about a winning culture, rejuvenating the fanbases and making their schools respective conference contenders.
When he left for UConn, it appeared we might have seen the last of Danny H stomping on the sidelines of the Dunk, but now Hurley brings his history with Cooley back to the Dunk to pick up where they left off.
This coaching head-to-head, above all else, could be the most interesting aspect of the new era of the PC-UConn rivalry. Now the teams will face each other twice a season with the simmering Hurley / Cooley coaching rivalry putting much more than bragging rights on the line. And if they meet at MSG in the Big East Tournament, all I can say is watch out because that building will be rocking trying to contain the intensity of these two fanbases.
3. Fiery Fans
The best part about any rivalry, of course, are the fans. I’ve written extensively about the rivalry between PC and URI from a fan perspective, highlighting how both sides of the aisle feel about each other, the history of the rivalry, and the respective teams.
UConn / Providence is a different type of rivalry. Through equally intense, this is a conference rivalry – it’s more than just an L on the win/loss column, it’s a chance to literally knock the other team down a peg in the conference standings adding fuel to the fire that there is no love lost between these two fanbases.
But that isn’t even the most interesting part, in my opinion. No, the most interesting part is the level of heat this will bring. I think it’s fair to say that the new Big East has had an interesting camaraderie among the fanbases. We root for each other out of conference, we’re respectfully intense during the season, and we pull for each other come March. Even Villanova, with all their success, has effectively played the graceful victor. Put another way: it’s hard to root against Jay Wright when he’s rooting so hard for your team at every other point in the year.
Not so with UConn. UConn brings a legitimate – dare I say? – hate back to the conference. Sure, Xavier or St. John’s could have held that mantel at some points, but neither to UConn’s level. Likewise, who in the AAC brought that for UConn? … Houston? … Cincy? … No, don’t be ridiculous. Though there may be no love lost between those fanbases, their mutual distaste pales in intensity in comparison to that between Providence and UConn. Entering Providence as a sophomore, this was one of the first things I learned about the team: we didn’t like URI, we didn’t care for Boston College, but we hated UConn. Since the announcement a week ago, both fanbases have reignited the flame with smack talk, feverish message board posting, and – most important of all – buzz creation for these teams reuniting on the hardwood as conference foes once again.
There has been plenty of analysis on what UConn’s return means for college basketball, the Big East, and the Providence Friars. For me, several things are certain: the Big East got a new team to play the villain, Providence got reunited with a great rival, and that rivalry could enter it’s most interesting chapter yet.