PROVIDENCE — The game matters.
The reasons might be different now than they were years ago, but the annual meeting between Providence College and the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball teams will always carry more weight than your standard regular-season game.
If you don’t believe it, just ask the coach who won in his debut in the 133rd matchup between the teams.
“These games transcend all metrics and what’s best your you and whatever,” Kim English said after the Friars beat the Rams, 84-69, on Saturday night. “It’s important for our fan base, it’s important for our college and it’s important for that university. It’s a great game.”
Ed Cooley tried his best to downplay the importance of the game, but losing one or two matchups to the Rams will do that.
English understands what the game is all about, but Cooley’s thinking poisoned the minds of those who want you to believe the annual battle for Ocean State pride is just another game.
As college basketball has become big business, what the game means to both programs has certainly changed. There’s certainly more at stake for a Providence team playing out of the Big East vs. mid-major URI playing in the Atlantic 10.
But saying Saturday was “just another game” means putting on the same level as Tuesday’s game against Wagner, which had 4,000 fewer fans than Saturday and drew less buzz than the excitement over Raising Cane’s opening in Johnston next month.
Why URI-PC matters is because people care.
The players are asked to treat every game the same, but it’s no different than it was 30 years ago. Players were just as friendly back then, they just didn’t have social media to tell the world who they were hanging around with but knew what to do when it was time to face their friends.
“I knew guys like Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley, but it was still a rivalry,” former PC star Jamel Thomas said. “We’d play against each other in the summertime and then we’d see who got better. Whoever won that year, we knew who got better.
“We can’t be friends before the game. After the game, we can get pizza or do whatever, but before the game I didn’t know you and you didn’t know me.”
You need the game to matter to fans because not every game is going to. In the age of NIL, marketing is more important than ever and if you don’t have marketable games that draw interest from your base, you’re going to have a hard time doing what you need to do for your program.
If Saturday’s game truly didn’t matter, why were Providence College students ready to burst through the doors of the arena more than two hours before the tip?
“I think it’s a joke. It absolutely matters,” said Nolan Anderson, a senior at PC who attended the game with roommates Turner Howell and Chris Chiulli. “Since we’ve been here we haven’t lost to URI. We just want to keep winning because we think we’re one of the best teams in the country.”
“It matters a lot. It’s a battle of the state and every year this game means something – it’s who’s the best team in Rhode Island,” said Howell, a senior at the school who had yet to see the Friars lose during his college career. “We feel like we’re the best team in Rhode Island every single year.”
“It’s not just any game. It’s the Ocean State – it’s a battle,” said Anthony Hassell, a 27-year old URI graduate. “Bryant’s our little brother, Brown’s our little brother and we have to beat big brother in PC. It’s just bad blood between the schools.”
The bad blood part may have been true 20 years ago, when PC fans didn’t root for URI or vice versa under any circumstance. As it currently stands, the PC-URI matchup will never match Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, UNC-Duke or any of college sports’ great rivalries where your rival’s loss is just as good as your win – but that’s OK, which might be hard for an older generation to understand.
“I’m gonna say that if PC is in the NCAA Tournament, obviously I’m going to root for them,” said Adam Lurgio, a junior from Narragansett who proudly wore a signed URI jersey on Saturday night. “When they do well in the Big East Tournament and go deep, I root for them because it’s always Rhode Island first. When they play each other, it’s URI first and PC in the basement.”
Standings didn’t matter on Saturday. The only thing that did was the game.
If you were there Saturday night, you felt the energy rise as the building filled up with fans. The energy was tense, to say the least, as a game any PC fan would have told you was going to be a blowout was uncomfortably close.
There were groans. There was nervousness in the air. There was the airing of grievances toward the officials. There were words between players. For a game that mattered, it certainly felt like one that mattered a lot because for the first time this season, the teams were playing for something.
And English, going back to his playing days at Missouri, understood what that was.
“I told the guys, championship games and rivalry games, it’s time to take a step back and nothing else matters but the result,” English said. “I don’t know how many points I had against Illinois, I just know after we lost to them my freshman year we beat them three straight times. I don’t know how many points I had. I have no clue.”
English pointed out Ticket Gains and Josh Oduro, PC’s graduate transfers, will leave the program knowing they never lost to URI. After Saturday, none of PC’s players can make that claim.
And while it might not mean much now, it will later.
“I asked Ernie D, how many times did you lose to URI?,” said English, referencing PC great Ernie DiGregorio. “That’s what matters. For 40 minutes, for a week of prep, just give everything you have just to win the game.”
And you don’t really say that about just another game.