Friar Basketball

Digging Deeper on the ’94 Friars

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To complement the most recent Friar Classics article, Craig Leighton and Kevin Farrahar take a look back on the 1994 Friars.

Kevin Farrahar: Craig, the one thing that’s impossible to ignore is the pure physicality of the Friars up and down the roster. I remember this team well, but didn’t attend PC until the fall of 1997 (the year after the Elite 8 run), and I can’t remember anything close to this group from a pure physicality standpoint. The play where Michael Smith almost took a UConn player’s head off was such a tone-setter and such a symbol of what the Big East was back then. Was this the most imposing team you’ve seen at PC? Are there any other teams that would compare?

Craig Leighton: This was easily the most physical team that I can remember in the history of Providence College. You have to remember that in the ’70s and early ’80s college basketball was a much less physical game, so those Friar teams were not nearly as imposing. By the early ’90s the Big East was known as the most physical conference. Teams from other conferences were intimidated when playing against Big East. The ’94 Friars were so imposing that even other Big East teams were intimidated by playing them.

The program has had several physical players throughout the years, including Otis Thorpe, Marques Bragg, and Ruben Garces, but no team was as physically imposing as the ’94 Friars. And no player was as intimidating as Michael Smith.

KF: In re-watching this game, the other thing that stood out was PC’s confidence. They knew they were good enough to beat a top 3 team in the country and it showed. Was that the feeling in watching them back then? Maybe I’ve watched too many Tim Welsh and Keno Davis teams that never felt like they could compete, but it was just so apparent that these guys truly believed they were winning this one.

CL: The ’94 Friars were brimming with confidence coming into the Big East Tournament. At one point during the season they were 13-9 and on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament. Smith, Rob Phelps, and Dickey Simpkins were on the verge of going through their entire college careers without making the Big Dance.

PC proceeded to rip off six straight wins (including wins against St. John’s, Villanova, and Georgetown) to ensure that they would make the NCAAs, so their confidence entering the tournament was at an all-time high. They also had a chip on their shoulders due to perceived underachieving in previous seasons.

KF: The Rob Phelps/Michael Smith/Dickey Simpkins class was one of the most heralded coming into PC. They were seniors in 1994 and seemed to pull it all together at the perfect time. What are your memories of that class — specifically, the hype they had prior to arriving — and what were your takeaways from watching their careers?

CL: The hype for this class was off the charts. They were ranked third in the country by some of the recruiting services, and PC was just coming off of three straight successful seasons led by the recently graduated Eric Murdock.

Things got off to a rocky start right away as Smith and Phelps were declared ineligible and had to sit out their freshmen seasons. What I remember most about the next couple of seasons is that Rick Barnes was not able to bring in the proper supporting cast to make the most of their talents. The team needed a big time scorer/shooter and a top point guard, and went a couple of years without truly fulfilling this need. Eventually, Eric Williams and Abdul Abdullah were added, which greatly improved the team.

KF: Abdul Abdullah threw a lob pass that sent Billy Packer into a tizzy. What type of role did he play on this team?

CL: Abdul Abdullah transferred in from CCRI and became the legitimate point guard that this team sorely needed. He had previously led Central High School to two Rhode Island High School Championships along with current PC coach Ed Cooley. Unfortunately, Abdullah did not provide much scoring and was not a good outside shooter, which at times hurt the team.

Before Abdullah signed, Barnes had accepted an early commitment from Matt Alosa, a high scoring point guard out of New Hampshire. Alosa didn’t work out at PC and transferred a couple of years later. Many Friar fans felt that if they hadn’t taken the early commitment from Alosa, PC could have gotten Travis Best to accept a scholarship.

Best was a Massachusetts native and McDonald’s All American who went on to become an elite point guard at Georgia Tech and in the NBA. Friar fans were left wondering what this team could have been with Best at the helm.

KF: I still remember the hype around Best and his 81 point game his senior year of high school. Georgia Tech had such a great run of point guards — Mark Price, Best, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury… I digress.

Phelps was electric: 10-11 shooting from the floor, making and-1s, transition 3s, leaners, and jump shots with players draped all over him. Where do you rank this among all-time clutch postseason performances in PC history? It reminded me somewhat of Bryce Cotton against Carolina in 2014. It seemed like each Phelps make was bigger than the next.

CL: Phelps was a man possessed during that game. He simply could not miss. It is probably one of the five or six best games ever by a PC player, primarily because it was such a statement game for those Friars. But there were so many great postseason performances by Friar players throughout the years, including Ernie D. against Maryland, Vinnie Ernst against Holy Cross in the NIT, and Derek Brown’s 33 against Duke, just to name a few.

KF: What were the feelings on Barnes at the time? Was he a square peg at PC culturally?

CL: Barnes was well-liked personally during his time at PC and was thought of as a great recruiter. Most fans felt he was very weak as an in-game coach, one that could not win big games. You have to remember that he came to the Friars after only one season of head coaching experience at George Mason. He went 0-3 in NCAA Tournament games while with the Friars.

In the local press Jim Donaldson used to blast him on an almost daily basis. I am not sure what that was about other than just Donaldson being Donaldson. During his final year at PC (the 1993-94 season) it was the worst-kept secret in college basketball that Barnes would be leaving for another coaching position at the end of the year.

KF: The college game has changed so much since 1994. With early departures, it’s difficult to imagine we’ll ever see a game in which there are a combined nine NBA players and two more who were drafted but never saw time in the league. Did fans realize just how rare that was at the time?

CL: I think the real question here is that while fans thought Barnes was a great recruiter, they did not realize just how great of a talent evaluator he was. The ’93-94 team was not the only Barnes team at PC that had four future NBA players on it, as the ’91-92 team had Smith, Simpkins, Ira Bowman, and Marques Bragg.

Most fans are aware of the story where Barnes had lined up Tim Duncan to come to PC but the school would not let him offer a scholarship until it was officially available at season’s end. Fewer Friar fans remember that when Barnes left PC he had a commitment from point guard Jason Williams, who went on to have a 12 year NBA career after being released from his letter of intent at Providence.

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