Cooley committed to winning at Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Marshon Brooks could score, so much so that the New Jersey Nets acquired him late in the first round of the NBA draft.

But Providence couldn’t defend. The Friars gave up 79.9 points a game under Keno Davis. And the numbers away from home toward the end of the season were even worse as Providence limped to the finish line, giving up 83 or more points six times in the final nine games.

New Providence coach Ed Cooley has one initial goal in reshaping the program -- defend.

“My number one focus is to focus on fundamentals defensively,’’ Cooley said. “I don’t care what they did prior to [me] being here. I want to establish one of the best defenses in the country.’’

Cooley has a tough sell there with the current crop. He’ll need to harp on the defensive side of the ball as much as possible. He said there was no ball for the first few times he went through individual instruction after getting the job.

Brooks is gone, his eligibility exhausted after providing 32.5 percent of the team scoring -- the most at PC since Jimmy Walker scored 39.2 percent in 1966-67. The Friars also lose fifth-year senior Ray Hall and two players who have been dismissed in sophomore Duke Mondy (7.7 ppg) and freshman Dre Evans (1.4 ppg).

The two newcomers will have to help in 6-foot-6 wing LaDontae Henton out of Lansing, Mich., and 5-foot-7 guard Kiwi Gardner out of Oakland. The Friars still have juniors Vincent Council (13.7 ppg) and Kadeem Batts (7.1 ppg) and sophomore Gerard Coleman (10.3 ppg) returning.

But there is a mentality that has to change here. The Friars have had a long history of success from Dave Gavitt to Rick Pitino to Rick Barnes to Pete Gillen to the early Tim Welsh years. But most of that, if not all, was in the pre-16 and soon to be 17-team Big East.

The Friars were 417-372 overall and 172-246 from 1979 to 2005. When the Big East went to 16 teams, the Friars were mired in mediocrity at 91-94 overall, 37-67 in the Big East.

PC’s home arena, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, has been refurbished. The school has a new athletic facility that is more than manageable for a smaller school. But the proximity to players is still an issue for Providence and that won’t change. If you were to honestly go down and rank the current 16 jobs on how hard they are to win, Providence and Seton Hall would be at the bottom, just below DePaul and South Florida, according to a number of coaches in the league.

Seton Hall may be in New Jersey, but playing in Newark, off campus, and in a congested traffic area is never an easy sell. That’s an issue for DePaul, too, playing closer to O’Hare Airport then campus in downtown Chicago.

Interest has always been an issue at South Florida basketball. PC has dealt with a small talent pool in the region, needing to fight for recruits in the New York area and dealing with a small, private campus that has lacked diversity.

Now Cooley is the first African-American head coach and he will gladly take advantage of his groundbreaking hire.

Cooley is in charge at Providence and he has the background in the city and the personality to make a valiant attempt at making the school relevant again.

“My whole career has been about finding diamonds in the rough and developing young men,’’ Cooley said. “We’ve got to establish our identity and get rid of the bad habits. We’ve got to run a fun, offensive style. We’ve got to win our home games and build a brand.

“I’ve been at the bottom of the Big East as an assistant and I learned from Al [Skinner] at Boston College in how to implement players. I found a niche at Fairfield. I didn’t get them to the NCAA tournament and I feel bad about that, but we did well and we didn’t have many Connecticut kids. We’ve got to identify the kids that are good enough for us.’’

Cooley said he still needs to evaluate this current team, which will be a bit of a mixed bag for next season. He doesn’t have many choices since Brooks is gone. There are no stars.

“I’m still not sure what style this team will play,’’ Cooley said. “But I do know one thing -- we’re going to guard somebody. It may be 15-10 at halftime. But we’re going to guard somebody. We’re going to learn to play defense the right way.’’

The Friars will be predicted for the bottom of the Big East. PC might even be last. But Cooley has already connected with the campus and the city. He will get people to come and watch. Clearly, he has to win for them to return.

“Providence is committed in a different way now,’’ Cooley said. “But they’ve never had a coach from Providence. I can sell Providence College. I can sell being from here.’’