Friar Basketball

Friar Classics: 1994 BET Semis vs. UConn

Rob Phelps Eric Williams Sports Illustrated

When Providence played #2 Connecticut in the semifinals of the 1994 Big East Tournament, there were nine future NBA players on the floor — five from UConn and four Friars.

This doesn’t include that season’s Big East Rookie of the Year, Doron Sheffer, who was drafted in the 2nd round by the Clippers (but never stepped foot on an NBA floor), or PC redshirt Troy Brown who was an NBA draftee himself.

Jim Calhoun’s Huskies were loaded in ’94. They started the year unranked, but that didn’t last long. They cracked the top five by January and never left.

Donyell Marshall was their star and a 1st Team All American. The 6’9 power forward didn’t know if he was good enough to play at UConn when they began recruiting him, but by his junior year in ’94 he was a 25 point, 8 rebound per game terror. In the game prior to UConn vs. PC, he had 42 points and 10 rebounds against St. John’s.

That June, Marshall went fourth in the NBA Draft behind Glenn Robinson, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd.

Donny Marshall, Kevin Ollie, and Travis Knight all had NBA futures ahead of them, while the Huskies had a sweet shooting freshman from South Carolina who will be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Ray Allen averaged nearly 13 points per game that season, and flashed his knack for hitting clutch 3s when the Friars and Huskies went to the wire in the semis.

Providence had nothing as pretty as Allen’s jumper, but it seemed that was the way they liked it. Rick Barnes put together the most physical and imposing group in the baddest conference in the country. They were bullying bullies.

Michael Smith was the tone-setter, and remains the most intimidating Friar of the Big East era. “The Animal” led the Big East in rebounding all three years he played at PC, and graduated with the highest rebounding average in league history. He grabbed 26 boards against Syracuse that year and was off to the NBA in June.

Dickey Simpkins was his classmate and another bruising body with bounce. Simpkins was a first round pick (#21 in 1994), as were fellow frontcourt mates Eric Williams (#14 in 1995) and Austin Croshere (#12 in 1997).

Yet, for all of the star power between the two teams, no one was better than PC shooting guard Rob Phelps in this one.

Phelps came to Providence as part of what may have been the most heralded recruiting class in school history. He, Smith, and Simpkins were the headliners. Phelps was an enormous name in New York City at the time, scoring nearly 2,500 points for Nazareth High School in Brooklyn.

Seniors in 1994, Simpkins, Smith, and Phelps’ goal that season was to be the first Friar team to win the Big East Tournament (PC had never even reached the finals prior to 1994). Phelps said the team took it to heart when Barnes challenged them to be forever remembered as the first Big East Champions at Providence.

It wouldn’t have happened without Phelps’ amazing game.

He made 10 of 11 shots from the field, finishing a nearly impossible and-1 through traffic early, and then knocking down perimeter jumpers in every way imaginable — picking a pass off his ankles in transition to can a 3, coming off of curls for mid-range looks, and making three difficult shots in the final 2:30 of a one-possession game to keep UConn at bay.

I remember that year they were both close games,” Phelps told Friarbasketball about PC’s two regular season losses to UConn (the Friars fell by a point at home and eight on the road). “We were very familiar with them, and we said ‘We’re not going to lose to these guys three times.’”

The number one thing that I remember is how confident we were heading into that game,” Phelps said. “We all kept saying our goal was to win the Big East Championship. No one really believed it, but we did. We knew what we were capable of doing.”

Their confidence is what jumps out most when watching PC swing back and forth with Connecticut. It was a confidence born out of their toughness. Physicality was in their nature, and not just when the lights were on: “It was freakish physical. Games were very tough. Michael was a beast, Dickey was tough. People don’t realize how many fights we used to have in practice with each other. If people think the games were physical, they should have seen our practices. We used to have brawls.”

Providence successfully turned the 1994 semis into a brawl for most of the game, with Smith, Simpkins, and Williams hammering away at the glass, but a Friar lead that reached double digits dwindled to one late in the second half.

It wouldn’t be enough to bully Connecticut, PC had to counter the Husky offense with the game on the line.

Every time UConn pushed, Phelps raised his game to another level, with each shot bigger than the next in the game’s final three minutes.

Dickey, Mike, and all of them were like ‘We’re going to Rob.’ A couple of times Coach Barnes called out the play and it was supposed to go somewhere else, and they were coming to me because they were like ‘Rob, you’re hot,’ and when the shots went in there was nothing Coach could say. He kind of sat back and let us go because we were in a great rhythm.”

Hot is an understatement. CBS announcer Jim Nantz (calling the game with Billy Packer) more aptly, and succinctly, said “unconscious” after Phelps nailed his 10th field goal of the game — a jumper with 45 seconds to play to push PC back up three.

All of the future NBA talent, the rugged style of the ’94 Friars, and Phelps’ greatness are captured in this Friar Classics video.

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More from our interview with Phelps:

Rob is a high school dean at Bedford Academy High School in New York and has been working there for 13 years. He also stays involved in the game through his relationship with the sneaker company And-1, explaining, “I’m also an ambassador for And-1. They sponsor my team and I do events with them.”

Members of the 1994 team are all still extremely close. Phelps talks to his former teammates quite frequently, and interestingly, he said that they are also close with players from the ’94 UConn squad: “All of us are very good friends. I talk to Ray (Allen) all the time. I talk to Donny Marshall all the time. Kevin Ollie I speak with all the time. It was a very tight-knit community, even though we battled each other.”

“Believe me, we hated UConn and I’m pretty sure they hated us, but off the court everybody was good friends. We competed on the court hard.”

Why did he choose PC? “The first thing that drew me to PC was the size. I liked that it was a small school, but in a big conference… I was drawn to the small campus, the great educational situation, and the small classes.”

A young Ed Cooley was a fixture at PC in the ’90s, only then as a player. Cooley was high school teammates with Friar point guard Abdul Abdullah, and he used to scrimmage with the ’94 team while he played for Stonehill.

Phelps attends Providence games when PC is in New York, and Cooley has asked him to speak to his team, “He (Cooley) is doing a hell of a job. People are definitely excited to watch it… He’s building a culture there. We had it when we were there and it’s coming back around.”

On being part of such a highly regarded recruiting class: “We’d heard it. We were just kids coming in trying to make a mark.”

Phelps said Donyell Marshall was “a version of KD back then — a big guy who could handle the ball, shoot the 3, and block shots.”

His thoughts on Ray Allen back in 1994? “I knew Ray was going to be good, I didn’t know he was going to be that good.”

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Quick hitter highlights from PC/UConn in ’94.

Micheal Smith sets the tone early with an aggressive block attempt.

Billy Packer loses his mind over Abdullah’s lob to Simpkins.

Phelps catching fire.

Allen flashing his jump shot.

To see the entire 1994 PC/UConn Semifinal go to Bad Marvin’s Time Machine.

Twitter: @Kevin_Farrahar

Email: kevin.farrahar@friarbasketball.com

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