Originally written for College Hoops Digest
The Friars & Rams cited scheduling conflicts & COVID-19 effects as reasons for the pause on the in-state rivalry. Meanwhile, Alumni Hall will presumably be the site of Friar home games in 2020-21.
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December in Rhode Island.
As sure as there will be the afternoon tour of the Newport Mansions, the ice skating at Gurney’s, and the stroll down Federal Hill for old-school Italian cuisine...there will also be another edition of one of the most heated & high-stakes college basketball rivalries in New England.
But, as the two colleges announced in a joint statement on Monday, for the first time since the 2005-06 season, the Providence Friars and the Rhode Island Rams will not compete against each other in the 2020-21 campaign.
“We understand that the fans throughout Rhode Island enjoy our annual matchup with URI,” said Bob Driscoll, Providence College’s longtime Athletic Director. “Unfortunately, the circumstances this season made it too difficult to schedule the game. We have had discussions with Thorr (Bjorn, URI Athletic Director) and the coaches at URI and we are all in agreement that we will resume the series next season.”
Both Providence and URI cited scheduling conflicts and remaining effects from the COVID-19 pandemic (and subsequent halt on last year’s college basketball season) as reasons the annual matchup will not be played this year. The statement declared the two schools couldn’t come to an agreement on a date & location due to “issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflicts it has created with league scheduling requirements.”
While this should not necessarily be surprising news to college basketball fans, it stings nonetheless. The Friars and the Rams have squared off a grand total of 87 times since the 1949-50 season, and Providence has come out victorious in 61 of the grudge matches. Their 88th matchup this year would’ve made URI the 5th-most-played opponent in Friars program history; the sole four schools in front of the Rams are Villanova (102), St. John’s (98), Boston College (95), and Seton Hall (83).
In more recent history, the last two meetings between the two have been some of the most high-stakes and high-emotion. 2019’s meeting at the Ryan Center. Kingston featured a limping Friars team attempting to reverse course on a dreadful start to the year. They had just finished a 1-2 trip to Anaheim that yielded losses to Long Beach State and College of Charleston, and a near-loss to Pepperdine shortly after. The Rams took care of business in 75-61 fashion, causing many to question the legitimacy of the Friars’ offense, while thrusting URI into the limelight of the Atlantic-10 Conference’s potential suitors to slow down Dayton.
At the meeting prior in 2018, the Friars took a low-scoring 59-50 win from the Rams at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence.
Let’s take a look at some of the factors that played a role in the delay of the “Rhode Island Classic” between the Providence Friars and the Rhode Island Rams.
Schedule-building is severely restricted due to COVID-19 adjustments. Building a college basketball schedule is a daunting task - if you have a few minutes, check out this sit-down with Bryant assistant coach Phil Martelli Jr. breaking down how a schedule is built.
Now, the offseason & scheduling will look a lot different than ever before. Here’s the timeline of what Division I programs will be doing over the next couple of months:
D1 programs can begin preseason practice on October 14th
Teams can work out up to 20 hours per week, up to 4 hours per day
First possible day to schedule regular-season games is November 25th
No formal exhibition games/scrimmages permitted
27 maximum total games per team
Now, with UConn slated to officially become the BIG EAST’s 11th team this season, each team in the conference will play 20 games against its league rivals - 2 meetings with each BIG EAST team. That leaves 7 non-conference games for each team to schedule; this normally isn’t a far cry from the 10 or 11 tilts teams would normally be able to add to its menu, but another major factor plays into why this reduced schedule could be a theoretical nightmare...
Multi-team events are uncertain. Ah, yes! Who wouldn’t love to spend a couple days in November attending the Maui Invitational, the Jersey Mike’s Jamaican Classic, or the Cancun Challenge. Hell, I’d do some bad things to be watching Virginia beat up on St. John’s while wearing a short-sleeve button-down, sipping on a frozen margarita inside Chaminade University’s beachside gym in Honolulu. But with virtually no one planning to flock more than 5 miles outside their house this winter, it seems as though these “destination” events may not be happening in tropical destinations.
Instead, it seems as though we’ll see these multi-team events, or MTE’s, played at neutral-sites like Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut, or Myrtle Beach, or Charleston. Per sources with knowledge of the situation, the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York is also being considered as a neutral-site MTE venue.
The real issue that many analysts & insiders are finding with MTE play in the COVID-19 basketball world is not necessarily the destinations, though. MTE’s are typically massive branding tools for private sector entities such as 2K Sports (2K Empire Classic) and Jersey Mike’s (Jamaica Classic), as well as the non-profit and charitable groups who represent the beneficiaries of these tournaments...such as the Air Force Reserve Hall of Fame Basketball Classic, and the Wounded Warrior Project (2K donates most proceeds of the Empire Classic). So, not only are there millions of dollars invested from special interest groups in these MTE’s, but there are also commitments signed by teams years in advance to compete in them.
Is anyone going to force Bryant to play in the Junkaroo Jam if they have to travel across the nation to do it? What about the Akron Zips having to play in the Gulf Coast Showcase? While we don’t necessarily know if there’s force majeure protection for these programs, I highly doubt the NCAA and the sponsoring corporations would want to get into this battle.
Lucky enough, it does not appear this will be too much of an issue. It does sound like most teams will attempt to fulfill their MTE obligations; with more and more events moving into more neutral locations, it will likely be more of an opportunity than a nuisance for schools to participate. That’s what we needed to happen.
Where will they play? Well, it appears we got our answer just a few minutes before this was finished. Tim McKone of Rhode Island’s NBC affiliate spoke with Friars’ Athletic Director Bob Driscoll on Tuesday shortly after the announcement of the URI-PC rivalry today. Here’s the video of their conversation, courtesy of NBC10's sports director and the Friars' public address announcer, Frank Carpano.
And, here’s the transcript for those that are just scrolling through.
Bob Driscoll: “I don’t think we’re going to be at the Dunk. I talked with Larry [Lepore, GM of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center] last week, and as of right now we’re going to start looking elsewhere. Even if we could get to the Dunk in the second part of the year, I’m not sure they’re going to allow fans there. It’s going to be a challenge just getting teams in and out of the state given that [Rhode Island is] a hotspot right now. Hopefully by the time we play, it’ll open up. [We’re considering Alumni Hall] because we can keep it tight, and protect the student-athletes from people coming in from the outside, which is the goal. If someone tests positive, then it creates a domino effect. We just want to play games to the best of our ability.”
Tim McKone: “So, is the plan as of right now to play games at Alumni?”
Bob Driscoll: “That’s the plan, yes.”
Bob Driscoll’s representation of The Dunk’s stance towards resuming large events should not be news to anyone. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Gina Raimondo and other Rhode Island public servants were clear about their intentions for large gathering spaces - they were emergency backup plans for housing patients afflicted with coronavirus. The Governor and public health officials turned the neighboring Rhode Island Convention Center into a utility field hospital, set up with beds and medical equipment to house thousands of coronavirus patients if needed.
Larry Lepore, The Dunk’s General Manager, never had high hopes of a quick return anyway. On The Gresh Show a few months back, Lepore confirmed what many were thinking...it’d be a long time before we saw fans back in the Dunk.
“It looks like the Convention Center probably won’t come back online until January,” Lepore said. “There’s still hope that at the end of this year we’ll be able to resume some normal operation.”
So, in all likelihood, we will see Friar basketball on the campus of Providence College. While the women’s basketball program still calls Alumni Hall home, we have not seen a full season of Friar men’s basketball on campus in nearly 48 years. Providence’s 2009 exhibition against Merrimack marked its first game in Alumni Hall since 1978...their opponent? The Soviet National Basketball team.