PROVIDENCE — There’s finally a smile on the face of Ed Cooley, the Providence College men’s basketball coach.
After not being in a gym with his Friars for a true practice session since March 9, Cooley went six months without assembling his players for a workout.
No summer sessions, no orientation to Friar basketball upon a return to campus in September.
Now, with 13 practice sessions under COVID-19 health guidance and restrictions and wearing a face mask, Cooley’s bark is the same as it ever was.
Even more so because the Friars were picked No. 3 in the preseason poll by Big East coaches, with junior guard David Duke being named a first team preseason selection and senior center Nate Watson a second team pick. Villanova was tabbed No. 1 in the preseason poll, followed by Creighton at No. 2.
“We’re excited to be in the gym, to practice as best we can,” Cooley said during the Big East Conference’s virtual preseason media day Wednesday. “Our players are excited, we’re developing slowly.”
The Friars were on their bus, heading from the team hotel on Lexington Avenue in New York City to Madison Square Garden to play a first-round game in the Big East Tournament last spring when the sporting world had its lights shut off.
The Friars will play their first Big East Conference game in this revised 2020-21 season at Alumni Hall on campus Dec. 12 against Xavier and then host the old-new member of the conference, Connecticut on Dec. 17. PC then goes on the road to Seton Hall Dec. 20 and to Butler Dec. 23.
After that, the Big East schedule is tentative depending on COVID-19 and state health department jurisdictions.
“We do have a plan,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said of testing student-athletes three times a week and a potential schedule for January and February leading up to what is hoped to be a return to Madison Square Garden in March for the Big East Tournament.
“Our schools have always started testing as part of their preseason testing,” Ackerman said of the Big East adhering to NCAA guidelines.
“We’re looking at a variety of game formats,” Ackerman added of potential “bubble” sites as well as postponements and rescheduling games. “We will have some flexibility built into the schedule, we’ll be in a position to do that, if there are isiolations or contact tracing. There will be limits on how much makeup time we’re going to have, . because while the season is starting later will end at the normal time (second week of March). That’s the direction that we’ve gotten from the NCAA, to plan on a finish to the season and an NCAA Tournament that will start as scheduled.”
The hope is to play a 20-game Big East Conference schedule for each member school.
“We’re looking to have disruptions,” Ackerman said, recalling the March 12 scenario at MSG where the St. John’s-Creighton game was halted at halftime and the entire Big East Tournament canceled due to the health crisis at the time. “There will be risks, but we’re in a better position than we were in the summer. We’re determined to make it happen.”
Ackerman acknowledged that each member school will determine its own rules for fans to attend games, whether on campus or in a municipal building.
“It will vary,” Ackerman said depending on each state’s protocol, noting that Madison Square Garden in New York is closed. Ackerman also was emphatic with Big East Presidents, Athletic Directors and coaches that “athletes accountability will really matter — paying attention to the rules and taking it upon themselves.”
Which is where Cooley’s imprint upon his players must be of importance beyond the x’s and o’s.
“I’m optimistic about the season,” Cooley said despite losing four seniors.
The Friars do have a half-dozen newcomers in the program, including New Bedford’s Brycen Goodine, a transfer from Syracuse who received an NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility. “
We have some new faces that we’re trying to blend in, a couple of transfers, a couple of freshmen,” Cooley said. “I’m looking forward to what could be a good season, the most important thing is the Big East. We’re excited to have Connecticut as part of the family once again. We’re looking forward to competing and winning as many games as we can.”
PC compiled a 19-12 record last season, finishing fourth in the Big East regular season at 12-6, the most wins ever. The Friars finished the season with a six-game winning streak, beating five Top-25 teams after starting the season 6-6 with three straight losses in December.
“Our guys are trying to figure out one another’s strengths,” Cooley said. “From a coaching perspective, it turns your gut because we’re turning the ball over at an alarming rate. We’re developing slowly, it’s been very sporadic. Our guys are trying to expand their games, so that they can get comfortable in what they can do and what they can’t do.”
The Friars also return junior shooting guard A.J. Reeves and a pair of potential pieces to the puzzle in forwards Jimmy Nichols and Greg Monroe.
“I’ve been very cautious with our guys, with their soft tissue,” Cooley said of developing players’ endurance. “I lean on our medical staff. We didn’t get on the court until mid to late September. We haven’t practiced all summer and haven’t worked out.
“You talk to the players, how are they feeling. Then you have to trust what your own eyes are seeing. You can’t go 100 miles an hour in trying to prepare your guys.”
Cooley all he can prepare for is one game at a time, a Nov. 30 game against Indiana in Asheville, N.C., of all places, a first-round Maui Invitational contest.
“We’ve been talking to our players a lot about controlling what we can,” Cooley said of the safeguards on campus and in the gym. “You have to talk to them about being patient, about being flexible, about being connected, about following protocol with how the virus as spread — social distancing and wearing our masks in practice, which has been very difficult.
“If we continue to do the right things, whatever changes, adjustments and pivots that we need to make, we’ll do that. There will be a lot of changes and adjustments that we’ll have to make throughout the season.”