Providence has plenty to prove in Paradise

There is always danger in the sentimental hire.

Just ask NC State. In spring of 2006, after the conspicously unloved Herb Sendek fled Raleigh, N.C., for Arizona State, Wolfpack fans got one of their own: Sidney Lowe, point guard for Jim Valvano's legendary 1983 title team, a man with no shortage of blood-red sportcoats. After a decade bouncing around various NBA jobs, Lowe had come home, and the Wolfpack family was ready to fall back in love.

Five years, 86 wins and zero NCAA tournament berths later, Lowe was fired. Such are the perils of sentiment. The warm and fuzzy hire is not always the right one.

Three years ago, when Iowa State coach Greg McDermott saw the writing on the wall, the Cyclones went sentimental, too. It was fair to raise concerns about Fred Hoiberg. He was an Iowa State legend with a solid NBA track record and zero experience as a college coach. Sound familiar? But Hoiberg has defied any such concerns. Not only have his teams been immediately successful, they've been thrilling, too. Iowa State is as consistently entertaining a program as there is in college basketball; Hoiberg is one of the hottest names in the sport.

Third-year Providence coach Ed Cooley, a hometown kid who struggled in the poverty of South Providence before scratching his way into college basketball -- first as a player then a coach -- appears to sit far closer to the Hoiberg end of the spectrum. Three years in, the jury is leaning that way, but it is still out.

It is this season -- and, in the immediate term, this weekend -- that will tell us much about whether that verdict should stick.

Why this weekend? After three years of suddenly competitive recruiting and steady on-court improvement, Providence has begun its 2013-14 season 4-0. That's all well and good, but the only notable win came on opening night at home against a better-but-hardly-elite Boston College. But this weekend at the Paradise Jam, Providence's mix of impressive seniors (Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts) and emerging sophomores (Josh Fortune, Tyler Harris, former top-five guard prospect Kris Dunn, who is still recovering from a shoulder injury) get a mix of totally winnable but nonetheless intriguing tests. The first comes in Friday's opening round against a depleted Vanderbilt, but the especially interesting stuff comes later -- a possible second-round matchup with La Salle, and a shot, if seeds hold, to play Maryland in the title game next week.

A few months ago, you'd have picked Maryland to win the Paradise. But the Terps have stumbled -- they allowed 90 points in a home loss to Oregon State Sunday night -- while Providence has looked like a top-half Big East team or better.

Early as it is, this is one of those prove-it weekends for Friars hoops, and for Cooley generally. Providence should get to the NCAA tournament. It should be better this year. Cooley's resurrection of a proud but long-dormant program should continue. Should the Paradise Jam be a referendum on all of the above? Of course not. But these are the kinds of games you win on the way there.