Friar Basketball

A Sit Down Conversation with Bob Walsh

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Two days prior to the first ever meeting between Providence College and nearby Rhode Island College I had the opportunity to swing by RIC’s campus to speak with head coach Bob Walsh about Saturday night’s game, the tremendously successful program he’s built since 2005, his thoughts on the 2012-13 Friars and his friendship with Ed Cooley, before taking in their evening practice.

The former Tim Welsh assistant at Providence has won 76% of his games at RIC, taking home the regular season title in four of his seven seasons, while reaching the Division III Sweet 16 on three occasions and the Elite Eight in his second year.

While a trip to downtown Providence to take on the Friars is certainly a unique experience, Walsh’s group won’t take to the court with stars in their eyes, “We’ve played six division I exhibition games now – every year except my first year.  We beat Iona, we beat Holy Cross, we’ve played URI four times.  What it does for us is it forces us to prepare to win at a high level right away.  It answers a lot of questions a lot quicker.  It exposes our weaknesses and creates a scenario where we’re not going to play another game all year that’s tougher than the one we’re going to play on Saturday night.”

He continued, “The Iona game was really a seminal moment for us in this program. It was my second year, we’d had a good first year.  I had most of the group back and it was a team that was always known as talented, but not one that could get over the hump and win, and then when we beat Iona guys bought into what we were doing, I bought completely into what we were doing and that team ended up 27-4 and went to the Elite Eight.”

What is there to learn from playing DI schools? “We charted our halfcourt offense the last couple of years against URI and we felt like we could guard them in the halfcourt.  We gave them some layups off of turnovers, we gave up some layups off of putbacks where their size was just too much, but our halfcourt defense was actually really good.  That’s something we can carry over and say ‘you know what, guys, we have a chance to be really good.’  When we’re not playing well defensively against Brandeis I can say ‘we can play defense against URI, but we can’t guard these guys?’

So, there’s a lot of carry-over that you can take from the game.

And it’s just a ton of fun.  Our guys don’t get to play in big arenas and on television that often, so the PC game is special for a number of reasons: one, I worked there and love the place.  Two, we all feed off the fact that basketball is really important in the state and the center of that is PC.”

 

Not Just a Learning Experience

Make no mistake about it, RIC’s visit to the Dunkin Donuts Center isn’t a photo op.  Walsh has instilled a competitive nature that won’t allow for less than an intense effort, “We’ve developed a mentality here where we show up to win.  When we get off the bus we’re prepared to win and we’re going to go downtown Saturday night and try to win.  We went down to URI to try to win.

We don’t change what we do because we’re playing a Big East team, or because they’re bigger than us, or because they’re quicker than us.  We’re going to show up and we’re going to guard Providence man to man.”

It’s that competitive culture that has allowed Walsh’s teams to excel during his time at RIC.  It’s a culture Ed Cooley is in the process of building at Providence.  Walsh believes Cooley is on his way to doing so.

Walsh reflected on his first season at RIC, when a team with plenty of talent hovered around .500 in mid-January, causing him to question how effectively he was communicating his principles with his players.  While he turned the program around quickly at RIC, Walsh cautioned that a complete culture change takes a long time to fully cultivate.

In the impatient world of high-major college basketball coaches are not often afforded the time to do so.  Walsh explained what it takes to overhaul a program and the approach Cooley is taking, “Cooley is doing it the right way.  It’s got to envelop everything you do.  It’s got to be academics, in the weight room, being on time, how you carry yourself at the mall – everything matters.

That’s a challenge because you’re going to lose guys along the way.  Not everybody will buy into it.  Not everybody wants it.  I say it to my guys all the time ‘this isn’t for everyone.’  We’ve had guys I liked who were good kids that dropped off along the way because they couldn’t handle it, or they didn’t want to do it.  That’s what makes it challenging.  You have to be willing to lose some guys along the way, and you have to be comfortable and confident enough to take some hits where all of the sudden one of your best players says they don’t want to do it.

It’s very challenging, but it’s the single most important thing you can do, especially at a place like PC where the right culture and approach is extremely important, where you’re not a separate entity like you could be at a big school like Syracuse or UConn.  At PC you’re a central part of the campus and community and they want you to be a student just like everyone else.  It’s extremely challenging, but it’s also crucial.”

 

PC: Then and Now

“They are a completely different team right now,” Walsh explains when asked to compare the Friars to a year ago.  “When I left the first practice I saw a year ago I left thinking they might win five or six games.  They were awful.”

Walsh had just wrapped up watching film from the Assumption game prior to our meeting and shared his thoughts on where they are different a year later, “They are so much more bought in, so much more collectively together from what I see.  Their defense is so much tighter.  They seem to be so much more on the same page, and that’s natural after the first year.”

In addition to studying game film, Walsh has already seen this team practice on a handful of occasions.

Depth is a lingering concern according to Walsh (“I still think they are going to take some lumps this year early because they are so thin, and then you’re working Sidiki (Johnson) and Kris (Dunn) in during the middle of the year which isn’t easy, so it will be a challenge”), but like so many he sounded high on freshman Josh Fortune (“I think he’s got a chance to be really, really good”).

Walsh agrees that the talent is rounding into shape, even if it is a year away from taking to the floor together.  He pointed again towards the effort Cooley has put in reshaping the culture, while also debunking a long-time belief about the challenges facing any PC head man, “I think the biggest challenge for Ed is just to make sure he gets the culture right.  Once you get the culture right I think it’s a great job.  I’ve said it to Bob Driscoll, I don’t think it’s a good job, I think it’s a great job.  There’s a culture where everybody is trying to help.  There is a small school culture with a support group there that is really good.”

Walsh was on the staff for Providence’s last two NCAA Tournament teams, in 2001 and 2004.  He reflected on the 2001 team’s surprising success, noting that depth played a big factor.  The Friars played 10 men that season, including four freshman, who gave them quality minutes.

When the conversation turned towards the 2004 team that peaked at #12 in the national rankings in late-February the conversation inevitably turned to the season-ending four game losing streak to close the season.  Some speculated that the team chemistry was amiss towards the end of the season, but Walsh believes it was more a matter of the blowout loss at home to Pittsburgh sapping the Friars of their confidence, “The Pittsburgh game was essentially for the league.  I remember Donnie McGrath was as fired up in the locker room before the game as he’s ever been, but Pittsburgh was just better than us and they proved it.

That game did a lot more to our psyche than we realized at the time.  It was ‘okay, Saturday is Senior Day, we’ll bounce back,’ and we came out down like 19-3 to Boston College in that game.  The Pitt game damaged us more mentally than we realized at the time.  It probably shattered us a little bit mentally.  When you get beat like they beat us, where they really manhandled us, it mentally put us in a spot where when things started going wrong we started to question ourselves.  We ended up as a 5 seed playing a Pacific team that was a good draw.  There’s no excuse, we just played poorly, but I think the Pittsburgh game shattered us more mentally than we gave it credit for, or addressed at the time.”

 

Cool with Cooley 

Walsh and Cooley became close when the two were assistants for Providence and BC.  The RIC coach remembers Cooley swinging by Alumni Hall to speak to him and Tim Welsh on his way to and from Boston College, “We became friends when he was at Boston College and we were at PC, and he lived right here (points down the street from RIC’s campus).  He literally lived between here and Providence College on Brentwood Avenue.

I took this job the year before he got the Fairfield job and I actually knew some people at Fairfield when he was going for the job and they asked me what I knew about him.  We’ve talked about working together in the past.  He’s one of my best friends, quite honestly, in the business.  He’s come over here to watch my team practice and give me another set of eyes.”

On Saturday night, however, Walsh brings a team downtown that will play with its trademark competitiveness, “We hang our hat on how hard we compete.  We don’t complicate things.  We play a lot of guys and play uptempo.  We want to put pressure on our opponents on both ends.”

 

Email Kevin at kevin.farrahar@friarbasketball.com

 

 

 

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