Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Probably not. But the Rhode Island Rams (5-3) and Providence College Friars (5-4) renew acquaintances after the passage of another year. The tilt returns to the Ryan Center as it’s the Rams turn to host. ESPN’s also in town, as this one can be seen on ESPN2 at 7pm and it figures to be a battle as always.
Atlantic 10 analyst and Yurview contributor Chris DiSano caught up with Rhode Island head coach David Cox to dig in on the Rams play so far and preview this intra-state rivalry.
Chris DiSano: Coach, thanks for taking a few minutes as always. You’re eight games into the season, have played a tough schedule, suffered no so-called “bad” losses, and own a 5-3 record. What’s your assessment of the team’s play to date?
David Cox: I think we’ve been solid. Definitely haven’t exceeded expectations and, in our minds, we haven’t met them as well, knowing we have those three losses.
Maryland is a terrific team and was a tough match-up for us, but I did feel that both the LSU and West Virginia games were winnable games if we played at a high, high level. It would’ve taken a true team effort and we didn’t get that in either one of those games which was disappointing.
LSU, on the defensive end… we struggled with their individual talent and athleticism. In the WVU game, we didn’t have enough offensive contributors to go along with Fatts [Russell]. At this point it’s been a solid year and we’re excited to be in the conversation as one of the top Atlantic 10 teams thus far.
CD: Thanks and that’s a good segue to the next question which is an easy one. Can you describe what it’s like to mentor, challenge, lead, and observe Fatts and his play on both sides of the ball?
DC: Let me put it to you this way… As a coach, and I learned this at a young age and have said it often over the past 10-15 years, it’s honestly an honor and privilege to coach and be in this position — and impact young men, and the most significant thing a player can give you is his trust.
Fatts trusted me. He trusted me when I recruited him to come here, when I took over the head coaching position, and he trusted me through some of his own darker times. We had a lot of conversations about maturing on and off the court that he needed to do… and leadership characteristics that he needed to display.
I think now that’s what people are witnessing – his evolution as a player and person – and it makes me very proud as a head coach to witness this transformation.
CD: Let’s pivot to the team collectively… is there any area – I’m sure there are a bunch as a coach – that you want to tighten up whether it’s defense, defensive rebounding and limiting opponents to one shot, etc.?
DC: Definitely defensively right now. I think we’ve shown the ability to be able to score but defensively, yeah, we’re not a Rhode Island team yet. We don’t have the grit, the multiple efforts, the urgency to get to loose balls, to get to long rebounds, and the physicality that’s needed to win championships. We’ve shown it in spurts but we haven’t shown it consistently enough to win at a high level. That would be the thing. Our defensive effort, integrity, and intensity as well as our defensive rebounding.
CD: Let’s spotlight Tyrese [Martin]. If you look at his numbers, they’re excellent. He scores it, he boards it, he impacts the game. Yet it seems like there’s more in there. What’s been your message to him about what’s in front of him and what you expect of him?
DC: We certainly need him to give us more on both sides of the ball and I think he’s a young man who’s so talented and physically gifted that his impact on the defensive end can and should be more. I think he has a great opportunity to be a really good two-way player at this level and, perhaps someday, at the professional level. So when we say he can give more, absolutely, and I think he understands that… but with that being said, this is a young man, a sophomore, where people expect him to not only be improved from his freshman year but to be one of the main cogs — and that’s a lot.
I think that takes time and that’s similar to Fatts last year. So I’d ask everybody to continue to support as they have and be patient and allow him to find himself and his way. As you mentioned he’s having a very, very solid year for us. Once he finds his groove – and some of that responsibility lies with the coaching staff and me in particular – and gets himself even more involved on the offensive end, and puts himself in better situations to get downhill, to the rim, and to the free throw line he’ll continue to grow.
CD: Friday’s contest, as you look at it beyond the rivalry itself, what challenges do the Friars present?
DC: Sure. This is an extremely deep and talented team. Looking at the rosters that Ed [Cooley] has had there since he’s been in Providence… and he’s had some good ones… I’m not sure he’s had a roster this deep and talented.
You just point to the fact that both Jimmy Nichols and Kris Monroe are playing very limited minutes because of the depth. You’ve got Luwane Pipkins, David Duke, and A.J. Reeves… you’ve got Maliek White who’s a veteran, grizzled, Big East guard. You’ve got Alpha Diallo another talented veteran, Nate Watson – one of the best bigs in the Big East coming off injury – Emmitt Holt, Kalif Young… There’s so much depth, size and talent.
The first thing to think about is how their size affects us on the offensive end. They’re able to switch quite a bit because they are athletic and long. They can make up, or cover, ground because of their length, and make it tough to get all the way to the rim. Offensively, they can pound the ball inside and crash the glass. So their overall size is a challenge, their talent level, and they’re obviously a very well coached team.
CD: Home cooking at the Ryan Center this year. What makes it such a great atmosphere?
DC: It’s the perfect college campus arena. It’s smack dab in the middle of the campus so all the students can get there. There’s not a bad seat in the arena. All the amenities and entertainment, the two student sections in the end zones are packed, loud and energetic. Season ticket holders right there across from both benches, floor seats… the whole atmosphere is college basketball at its finest.
CD: Let’s end with this… Beyond basketball, we have two African-American head coaches leading the premier programs in the state. What does that mean to you?
DC: That’s huge. You’re talking to a man who began watching college basketball a long time ago and I noticed at an early age the few numbers of African-American head coaches. So I latched onto people like the John Thompsons, John Chaneys, and a number of others… Nolan Richardson, people like that.
And then when I got to the coaching ranks, Ed is a guy that I also paid attention to… his career path, watching and admiring him from afar — and now interacting with him more closely over the past couple of seasons.
I think it’s a big deal not only for the state, but for the state of college basketball to have two pretty big time programs, obviously a Big East program with a lot of success and another successful one in Rhode Island from the Atlantic 10… so it’s not like we’re representing programs at the bottom of the barrel.
We’re representing two fine universities, two really good conferences and two high level programs.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 television analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44