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PC Friars, Big East, and the NCAA Basketball National Tournament – John Cardullo

by John Cardullo, sportswriter

Providence College being left out of the NCAA Basketball National Tournament? Is it time to restructure? Expand the field or reduce the number of teams? Or make the pretenders accountable by having them play teams that were locked out of the tournament.

Let it be known that I have been a Providence College basketball fan since I began to follow basketball in the 1960’s. I have lived and died the Friars for many years and have seen the team’s highs and lows.

Even when the dream almost happened when the team was on a collision course to play UCLA for the National Championship. The Friars fell to a Memphis State team that was over matched in the first half of their semi-final game before then Providence College Center Marvin Barnes injured his knee and was unable to play in the second half. As any PC fan knows the result all to well, PC lost and Memphis State went on to play John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins lead by basketball Hall of Famer, Bill Walton. Memphis State lost the game and UCLA won another National Championship and PC returned to Rhode Island as heroes as we all were left wondering, what if? Sorry, I digress.

The seasons that followed had seen the college basketball landscape change. The time of non-conference college teams were coming to an end and making it into the National Championship tournament became harder. The ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) was a conference that usually sent teams like North Carolina 27-7, Duke 24-8, and North Carolina State 22-14 to the “Big Dance” on a regular basis. The Southeastern Conference has been one of college basketball’s powerhouse as well, sending 8 teams into the big dance, yes, you read it correctly, 8 teams!  Kentucky 23-9, Tennessee 24-8, Auburn 27-7, Alabama 21-11, South Carolina 26-7, Texas A & M 20-14, Mississippi State 21-13 & Florida 24-11, all made it into the NCAA tournament.

Let’s move onto the West Coast Conference, shall we? Gonzaga University 25-7 is making their 25th appearance to the big dance. Not that the WCC is a weak conference with teams like St. Mary’s, Loyola-Marymount 26-7 and Gonzaga, but let’s be honest here, this conference is no Big East!

Is it any surprise that over the years smaller and weaker conferences sprouted up with only one request from the NCAA, let the conference have at least one berth into the tournament. Teams such as the University of Vermont, 28-6, is a member of the America East Conference, along with UMass-Lowell, 22-10, Bryant University, 20-13 and New Hampshire, 16-15.

As these schools spun off their own conferences to compete with teams that were comparable, the automatic berths into the “Big Dance” began to water down the brackets. This left teams such as Seton Hall, 20-12, St. John’s, 20-13 and Providence, 21-13 on the outside looking in. The fans of these teams couldn’t understand how these three teams that have been part of one of the most powerful basketball conferences since the very beginning, could have been left out?

The answer are the teams that won smaller conferences stepped into the NCAA bracket plus with more than a few upsets in the conference tournaments, teams such as Howard 18-16, Wagner 16-15, Montanna State 17-17, St. Peter’s 19-13 and, yes, Michigan State 19-14 all punched their tickets to the big dance. Was this a case of teams getting “hot” at the right time? Or was it the benefit of teams playing “soft” out of conference schedules to pad their win-loss record?

Let’s face it, most major teams do that. Why do you think Providence College played St. Leo’s for many years? It padded their record. What was in it for St. Leo’s? They played a Division 1 team from the Big East, plus they were paid to take a beating every year. Visiting teams get part of the gate in every away game they play. In the case of St. Leo’s where their home crowd of 1,000 spectators come to watch them play on a good night. They get a chance to play in front of a crowd of 6-10,000 people and take home enough money to fund their program and upgrade their facilities for many years to come. Like I said, all college teams in every major sport do the same thing.

What made matters worse for Friar fans was the fact they accepted an invitation to the National Invitational Tournament, the N.I.T. This was the cornerstone that Providence College basketball was built on. This tournament was as big as the NCAA tournament back in the 1950’s and 60’s. Providence College won this tournament back in 1961 and in 1963. This launched Providence College into being a major player in college basketball. Then Coach Joe Mullaney became a legend in Rhode Island because of the N.I.T. championships. Providence College began a basketball journey that lives on.

Mullaney gave way to his assistant coach, Dave Gavitt, who himself became a legendary figure in the major basketball scene. Gavitt eventually went on to create the Big East conference, which included Providence College. Being a part of the Big East was a feather in Providence’s basketball camp. Success came and went, coaches used PC as a stepping stone to bigger and better programs. Rick Pitino virtually coached, it seemed, at every major basketball program in the country. Rick Barnes, Tim Welsh, Pete Gillian all came and went. Each had a bit of success at PC but went on their way to bigger and better things. Even local high school hometown hero, Ed Cooley, who was an All-State basketball player at Central High school in Providence, came back to coach the Friars and brought the program back to prominence. But after many years of coaching at Providence, he, too, left for the bright lights of Georgetown University.

The current Coach, Kim English brought the team to a 21-13 record in his first season. Expectations were high for an NCAA bid, when the Big East were only able to secure three bids (University of Connecticut, Marquette University and Creighton University), it seemed that the Big East Conference had lost its shine. PC reluctantly accepted an invitation to the N.I.T. In a lackluster performance Providence was beaten by Boston College, as some of their better players sat the game out, using it to look at some of the returning players who didn’t get to play much during the season. It sounds nice but it rings hollow to the Friar faithful who paid for tickets and for parking to attend what was in reality a glorified scrimmage. Let’s call it what it really was is a money grab! One last revenue stream for the schools. Remember when someone says that “it’s not about the money!” you can be sure that it is all about the money.

Which brings us back to the beginning, why was the Big East conference snubbed? Their strength of conference schedule is among the best and toughest on a nightly basis. The non-conference schedule is not a total walk over. The NCAA, by doing what they did to the Big East, was insulting at the least, and disrespectful at the maximum. It is time for the Big East teams to up their non-conference game!

A perfect solution for the Big East teams is to schedule the Gonzaga’s and St. Mary’s, or Grand Canyon University’s of the world on their non-conference schedule and settle this on the court! Do what the NCAA committee is either unable or unwilling to do, and that is make these teams that hide in smaller conferences for them to get a cheap berth accountable. If by playing night in and night out in the Big East isn’t tough enough, then it may be time for those teams to be exposed as pretenders – rather than contenders! Or they can reduce the tournament to the top 32 teams in the country and let them play it out, but it would mean a lot less money for everyone. They can expand the tournament, what’s another 4 to 8 teams in the grand scheme of things? This could be the NCAA’s “one shining moment!”


John Cardullo, sportswriter. John is a lifelong Rhode Islander. His sports experience is extensive, as a player of youth and high school sports in Cranston, Rhode Island, a coach, and the Public Address announcer for several local High Schools over the last 16 years for Cranston East, Cranston West, Central, and Scituate as well as CCRI Men’s and Women’s Soccer.

In his spare time John is a Softball Umpire in Warwick and for 56 years he has been active in Men’s Slow Pitch softball and was inducted into the Rhode Island Slow Pitch Softball Hall of Fame in 2019. John had been in the printing industry for over 42 years.

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