Thinking out loud … while wondering whatever happened to Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone. ‘Cuz I feel as if I’ve been in it.
— The good times in Friartown keep rolling. Men’s basketball, hockey and cross-country are (or have been) nationally ranked this year, and the soccer team is in the NCAA tournament quarterfinal round this weekend, playing at Michigan State — the team’s best run ever in the NCAAs. And PC alum, board of trustees member and former soccer player Karl Anderson (Class of ’88, along with his wife, Kerry) has announced a commitment of $1.5 million to begin construction of a new soccer and lacrosse stadium on campus. The Friars are learning, “If you build it, success will come.”
— Getting the chance to call Providence and No. 1 Kentucky from inside the hallowed halls of Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, last weekend was a bit, well, anticlimactic. In the 20 years since I had the opportunity to be there previously (during PC’s 1994 NCAA tourney appearance), the building hasn’t changed much at all. But there are those banners hanging in the rafters, signifying the Wildcats’ place in the history of the sport. And the crowd of 24K sang “Happy Birthday” to legendary coach Joe B. Hall, as much beloved by the Wildcats faithful as Adolph Rupp himself. He sat right behind our broadcast position at courtside. Wonder what he thought of Joe Hassett’s referee rants?
— Had the chance to visit with former Friars assistant coach Fran Fraschilla, who of course has gone on to a great TV career with ESPN. He’s on the Ed Cooley love boat and loves the defensive intensity the Friars are bringing to the floor. And intensity is something, you might recall, Fraschilla brought to his own teams while at Manhattan and St. John’s — and something else, you might recall, that ended up costing him his job at SJU.
— Willie Cauley-Stein is a freak. I mean that in a good way, of course. But Kentucky’s 7-foot junior big man can run equally with and defend smartly against much smaller players, and he bottled up LaDontae Henton like no one else has before — or may ever again. If I’m in Philly, I’m thinking he might look good in a Sixers uniform — alongside of, or in place of, another former Cat in Nerlens Noel.
— And 6-11 freshman center Karl Anthony Towns? Two words: “Go pro.”
— My buddy Statbeast sez he’s getting into archaeology. It’s the best possible husband a woman can have — the older she gets, the more interested he is in her.
— The early returns on the Big East against out-of-conference opponents have been impressive. Other than Kentucky’s obvious glut of two-platoon talent and ability, the Big East has been THE story in college basketball to this point in the season. But don’t think for a minute the league can rest on whatever pre-conference laurels it can gather. This is all about the postseason, which is something associate commissioner for men’s basketball Stu Jackson told us in September. Scheduling the tougher teams is one thing — you’ve also got to win your fair share, and then win in March. So far, the formula is working according to plan.
— Surprises in the league? Butler is better than advertised, as Roosevelt Jones — who missed all of last year with a wrist injury — has solidified the Bulldogs’ backcourt and created matchup difficulties for opponents. Just ask Georgetown, as the Hoyas were forced to play a non-league game against Butler in the Bahamas, and lost.
— On the negative side, Marquette has really struggled for Steve Wojciechowski out of the gate. In the Big East’s unheard-of 38-2 start to the season, the Golden Eagles had both early losses. There have been flashes of promise with fifth-year senior transfer Matt Carlino (38 points vs. Georgia Tech) and redshirt freshman Duane Wilson (30 points against Tennessee), and further promise for improvement will come as the second semester begins with the eligibility of 6-foot-10 Indiana transfer Luke Fischer.
— A prediction: The Big East may get five teams every once in a while into the NCAAs, but to sustain (or better) that production, expansion will need to occur. Otherwise, the ACC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and even the football-first SEC will outfight the Big East for postseason spots. Playing in their own leagues, and playing non-conference games against each other, will only elevate the middle of those oversized packs. Two more teams, two more markets, two more schools with basketball-first traditions will help the Big East get closer to evening the score with the football-mad power conferences.
— The coaches love the round-robin in the Big East Conference scheduling. So it probably won’t happen soon, but as soon as Fox decides it would like more TV inventory, Saint Louis and Dayton still make the most sense as potential newcomers, for my money.
— Not for nuthin’, but can UConn drop its football program and rejoin the Big East? Talk about an albatross hanging around your neck. Can someone explain how a middling-to-poor UConn football program helps a four-time national champion men’s basketball program (or a nine-time national champ women’s team) remain relevant?
— I know coaches have to do what they have to do for the overall betterment of their team and program, but URI was hurt — again — when 6-10 center Jordan Hare left the team. This puts a lot of pressure on a young but talented backcourt, and there will be nights when there’s little to fall back upon, like against Kansas last week. But Dan Hurley hasn’t shied away from a challenging schedule.
— Rhode Island gets its slice of the rivalry pie this week with PC and URI meeting for the 125th time Wednesday night. With both teams looking toward the postseason this year, there’s more than just bragging rights at stake. The Friars have won four straight over the Rams and have won the last five played at the Dunk. Providence might have the momentum, but in this game — that doesn’t mean a thing.
— Congrats to the newest class of inductees for the URI Athletics Hall of Fame, which includes football players Mark Brockwell and Tom Cataldo, softball star Kellie Cookus, Michael LaBarbera from baseball, Stephanie Ulicny from cross-country, Andy Williams from soccer and former basketball standout Antonio Reynolds-Dean. Also honored at the ceremony next March will be retired longtime golf coach Tom Drennan.
— After a “wow” of a first half in their opener at defending national champ UConn, Bryant has slipped to a 1-4 start out of the gate. The Bulldogs lost the Battle of the Bulldogs to Yale Wednesday, and play at Brown Saturday night hoping to find some offense. Bryant is shooting just 36 percent from the floor for the year, and averages less than 60 points per game.
— Four friends in the local media — who I think the world of for their ability and for just being plain good people, are up for Rhode Island Sportscaster and Sportswriter of the Year, through their nominations from the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. Ken Bell from WLNE-TV (ABC 6) and Steve McDonald from WHJY/WWBB (B 101) are finalists, as are Brendan McGair of the Pawtucket Times/Woonsocket Call and Bill Reynolds of the Providence Journal. Tough to pick a winner in this group. Just sayin’.
— It’s a championship, but even if they win the MLS Cup, the New England Revolution still will be just a “soccer team” around here. A good one, sure. But despite the popularity of the World Cup this summer, and more than 32,000 in attendance for the Eastern Conference finals match at Gillette, soccer still rates a poor fifth on the pantheon of popularity among pro sports fans in New England, despite surging numbers among young athletes, youth leagues and casual fans. Why? It’s a good question.
Opportunities to continue playing remain strong as kids grow into teens and young adults these days. But as we grow older, the urge to “mainstream” exists, whether with friends or family. Unless everyone you know has played the sport, still plays the sport or even just watches the sport, old habits and longtime sports loyalties to other teams, sports and leagues simply are hard to pass over. That, and the bottom line around here — everybody loves a winner. If the Revs lose to the LA Galaxy, they’ll be five-time championship losers. That’s Buffalo Bills territory, right there.
So, does Providence and/or Rhode Island really want to bring the Revs to the Ocean State? Or is this similar to the farcical attempt to lure the Patriots here (or to Hartford) in the late ’90s? The support for such a move has been made public, and city and state leaders all seem to be in lockstep on the possibility. However, the Kraft family has designs on a site off of I-93 in Boston, if a move is made at all from Gillette Stadium. And MLS, while having teams in markets both large and medium-sized, still will focus on bigger cities in upcoming expansion. Of course, this wouldn’t be expansion. It all boils down to one thing — that starts with ‘m’ and rhymes with “honey” — and if there will be enough to go around for all parties.
— Have you had the chance to check out the Providence Sky Chiefs basketball team, the state’s newest entry on the sports landscape? Playing their home games this season at Rhode Island College’s Murray Center, the Sky Chiefs have started the season 3-1 and head to San Diego this weekend to compete in the San Diego Surf Invitational at Miramar College. Don’t dismiss these guys just yet — playing in the 76-team American Basketball Association, the Sky Chiefs are 17th in the league power rankings.
— No need to sound the alarm, or jump off of the Patriots’ bandwagon yet. But after watching Aaron Rodgers find his third, fourth and even fifth receivers on some plays against the New England defense last week, I’ll say this: Rodgers is the best QB in the game right now. No one else is close. He will need to win a couple of rings, however, to enter TB12’s rarified air.
— Last weekend’s game featured two great quarterbacks. This weekend it’s two great tight ends, with 34-year-old Antonio Gates still proving he’s one of the best to ever play the position — and complimenting Rob Gronkowski‘s style of play along the way. Still, Gates pointed out this week the secret to his success has been an ability to “be physical, but smart at the same time.” In other words, he knows when to turn on the physicality, and turn it off — something Gronk still is learning.
Ninety-six career TD catches for Gates (nine this year) is a phenomenal number — 10th all-time among all players. A couple more this week could put the San Diego Chargers in position to contend, rather than pretend.
— This is a very big week for the Patriots. Aren’t they all? Sure. But a loss in San Diego brings the pace-setters back to the pack, potentially invalidates their chances for a first-round playoff bye, and should serve to reinvigorate the Miami Dolphins, lurking right behind in the AFC East. New England can make it easy on everyone around here by just winning, baby. Otherwise, expect a case of region-wide agita kicking in next week.
— Condolences to the family of former Red Sox PR chief Dick Bresciani, who passed away after battling leukemia. Bresh was 76 years old. A member of the Red Sox, Cape Cod League and UMass Halls of Fame, he also received MLB’s award for public relations excellence in 1997. His memory of all things Red Sox, past and present, had been described as encyclopedic. He’ll be missed.
— On the Red Sox‘ signing of Kung Fu Panda (aka Pablo Sandoval) — called it. A need at third base defensively, a need for another potential big bat in the lineup, a need for another potential personality to join with and eventually take over for David Ortiz — check, check and check again. Made too much sense, almost.
— Hey Jon Lester! Can a guy get a loan? I could use a little “stupid money” for Christmas at Fenway this year (Dec. 13) to pay for those tickets. Stupid is as stupid does, Part 1.
I’m not surprised the Red Sox have been in the hunt to retain his pitching services for next year and beyond. I am surprised the New York Yankees haven’t been — at least they haven’t been more vocal or public about it. Cue the “Star Wars” Death Star theme music.
— Talked a little about this last week, but it’s worth noting Red Sox management remains interested in buying the Pawtucket Red Sox. The Pawsox haven’t said anything publicly, other than saying they can’t comment — but since Ben Mondor’s passing in 2010, the ship has been steered by team president Mike Tamburro and GM Lou Schwechheimer. Eventually, someone has to cash in, or cash out.
— It didn’t move the needle much around here, but I can’t say I’m surprised with UAB’s decision to drop football, making it the first FBS (Division 1A) school to drop big-time football since Pacific in 1995. Rising costs and the inability to keep up — even in Conference USA — foreshadowed a blood bath of red ink over the next decade. This is football’s netherworld, the seemly underbelly to the sport no one wants to see or acknowledge its existence. With the exception of about a dozen big-time universities, programs like UAB are subsidized by the university because the athletic department can’t come close to actually paying for itself, especially with football costs involved. Facilities, equipment, buildings, salaries, insurance — it never ends. Schools like Bryant jumped to D1 from D2 primarily because of football, because the sport has a way of solidifying and unifying a campus — and, of course, because there seems to be so much money out there these days for the taking. But in reality, the real cash flow goes to the chosen few, dictated by TV wishes. The bottom line for schools like UAB, to play the game you’ve got to be IN the game — and Alabama-Birmingham struggled with that compared to its in-state brethren. UAB couldn’t get in the same game played in Tuscaloosa and Auburn. School administrators had to be spooked by the “power five” schools and talk of paying athletes the “full cost of attendance.” They simply could no longer keep up with the Joneses — or Crimson Tide or Tigers. This won’t be the last team to leave the gridiron behind.
And even with all of the improvements made on campus, and the surge in ability as well as popularity with sports at Providence College, this week’s football demise at UAB brought back memories of baseball’s painful death at PC in 1999. For different reasons, perhaps, but painful nevertheless because it simply didn’t have to happen the way it did.
— Something else that didn’t have to happen the way it did — the St. Louis Rams with their “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture Sunday during pregame introductions. While I can appreciate the players’ willingness to let their feelings be known, and to ostensibly “support” the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, their gesture was classless, tasteless and just downright dumb. The St. Louis police wanted the NFL to fine them — even suspend them — for the incendiary move. That didn’t happen, and probably just as well that it didn’t. But the players — unapologetic for the move — don’t realize they represent more than just themselves. Supposedly, they represent the police and emergency workers and the hundreds (thousands) of citizens affected by the rioting, looting and burning of a town. Can’t imagine they’re all supportive of a move designed to draw attention to them, and not to the real problems their fellow citizens face. Stupid is as stupid does, Part 2.
— For all of the quips, jokes and tales about “The Twilight Zone,” in reality the former CBS television series lasted all of five years from 1959 to 1964. You can still find it today, however, in the vast universe of satellite and cable TV — somewhere. Rod Serling was the host, with a semi-serious, somewhat grave description of a paranormal or futuristic tale being told — usually with a surprise ending. The show’s stars were mostly up-and-coming actors who eventually made their way onto the big screen later in their careers (Burgess Meredith, William Shatner, Robert Duvall, Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford, to name a few), and the venerable TV Guide ranked it as the fifth greatest show of all time. “The Twilight Zone” also aptly describes the last four months between “Thinking Out Loud” columns for me, as I’ve been inexorably detained by unexplained circumstances beyond my control in this world of digital expression and enlightenment. Now that we’ve found shelter, we’ll be back again same time, next week. As you travel through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead. Your next stop, the Twilight Zone.
— Interested in having your questions on local Rhode Island sports (including the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics) answered in a somewhat timely fashion? Send ‘em to me! It’s your chance to “think out loud,” so send your questions, comments and local stories to email@example.com. We’ll share mailbag comments/Facebook posts/tweets right here! Follow me on Twitter, @JRbroadcaster, and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/john.rooke.
— Don’t forget to join Scott Cordischi and me on Providence’s 103.7-FM every Saturday from 7-9 a.m. Call in at 401-737-1287 or text us at 37937.