Friar Basketball

15 in 40: #4 Unfinished Business for Batts

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Perhaps the timing was coincidental. Hours after Ricky Ledo announced his intention to head to the NBA before ever playing a game at Providence, Kadeem Batts shared news of his own via Twitter, “Get ready for an exciting year #FriarNation I’m officially coming back to finish my college career strong!!! Prov City is back… Love ya’ll.”

This isn’t to imply that Batts’ decision hindered on Ledo’s, but it was telling that Ledo’s eligibility, and subsequent decision to stay or go, had such a stronghold on Friartown over the previous 12 months.

It’s certainly understandable. Providence fans had been looking for a savior since before Ed Cooley came to Providence, and who better to fill that role than a modern day Marvin? A Providence native, who was the best scorer in the country – one good enough to be a potential first rounder without suiting up in college – a kid who told college basketball’s elite “thanks, but no thanks” because he’d always dreamed of being a Friar. Ledo seemed like the perfect candidate to pull PC out of the Big East dregs and back to respectability and beyond.

2013-14 was the year Providence was supposed to make major inroads on the long road back to the top of the Big East. And while seemingly every national broadcast last season had the requisite graphic of the recruits and incoming transfers that would soon bring the program back to respectability, Kadeem Batts was quietly making good on a promise he shared at PC’s media day a year ago.

Then a redshirt junior, Batts was candid about the need for him to mature as a player and a person – and he spoke with conviction of how he’d go about doing so.

Few believed him last October, which was probably fair. He’d been held out of the first semester of the previous season, and while he had his moments in semester two (27 points against Louisville) his game never fully returned with him.

* * *

2012-13 ended well for the Friars, but it’s easy to forget how close it was to another lost year. Ledo never played, Kris Dunn’s shoulder kept him out until nearly January, Vincent Council seemingly never fully returned from an opening night hamstring injury, Sidiki Johnson quickly came and went, and Bryce Cotton battled a bum knee that kept him out of games in the first semester.

The Friars lost all but two games from Dec. 22 through Jan. 31, a stretch that took them from 8-2 to 10-11 (and an unsightly 2-7 in the Big East).

While it didn’t feel so in late-January, there were big moments in those 10 wins, and Batts was at the heart of most of them.

After the Friars edged lowly NJIT by a point in the opener, there were serious questions as to whether they could defeat Bryant two days later. Batts and the Friars crushed Bryant that night, with Batts scoring 27 points on 12-15 shooting.

In a 1-2 visit to Puerto Rico, Batts averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds for a PC team that played with just four scholarship players at times.

December included the popular refrain “let’s see him do it in the Big East” when Batts eviscerated Mississippi State to the tune of 32 points, eight rebounds and three blocks, and again when he put up 23 and 7 in a win over URI on a night in which Cotton’s knee hobbled him.

He scored 34 points in PC’s first two Big East games, and had 20 and 9 in an overtime loss to UConn to close January, but in February his game took off — as did the fortunes of Providence.

* * *

Cotton’s game-winning three point shot against Villanova to kick off February may have been the season’s, and to an extent the program’s, turning point, but it was the terrific play of Batts that often carried them to the winningest February in program history. More significantly, it changed the conversation in Providence.

With each February win, the talk became less about who couldn’t suit up, but what those in uniform were doing on the floor. Providence won seven of their next eight games, with the only loss coming on the road to Syracuse without Council, and another “wait ’till next year” season in Friartown became “wait ’till we add a few more pieces around this core” buzz.

Following the Villanova win, Batts’ game took off. He scored 69 points in the next three games — wins over Cincinnati, South Florida and Notre Dame, leaving Mike Brey gushing about how the Irish had no answer for Batts and how he “played like a pro” against ND.

With each win, Batts cemented himself as more than a bridge player from the Keno Davis era to the heights Friar fans hope PC will reach under Cooley. Like he said he would in October, Batts turned himself into a different player, and now he’s perhaps the most critical part of a core that Friartown is quietly confident can dance and do damage in March.

Providence nearly played into April last season, finally falling in the NIT against Baylor’s massive frontcourt, but Batts once again acquitted himself well with 20 points and eight rebounds in a game that some began speculating (and it was legitimate speculation) would be his last at PC.

Like many of the greatest Friars, Batts didn’t come here with great fanfare, or the promise of being a program saver, but he was either 1 or 1a on a team that breathed life back into the program. It was a team that hit rock bottom (see: losses to Brown and DePaul at home), but recovered early enough to prove that there is fight in this group left yet — just as Batts had done with his PC career.

He finished last year as the Big East’s Most Improved Player and was named Honorable Mention All Big East. This season he leads Providence into a new era of the Big East, and perhaps the return of Providence basketball.

It didn’t seem likely a year ago, but had Batts walked after graduating last spring, the prospects of the Friars would look far different heading into 2013-’14. Now, he could well be the catalyst for the returning Providence back to the NCAA Tournament.

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