By Jake Zimmer
Twitter: @JakeZimmer12
For the latest in college hoops, follow us at @NCAAHoopsDigest.

“There are some guys out there that are just totally lost.”

We heard the warning cries from Ed Cooley during the weeks leading up to the start of the 2020-21 season.  He echoed the sentiments of coaches across the nation, whether vocal about it or not: Providence was simply not ready to compete in their first multi-team event of the year.

For Providence fans and BIG EAST aficionados, the Friars’ dismal performance in the Maui Invitational this year yielded all-too-familiar glimpses of the dreadful 7-6 start to 2019-20.  One of the most high-profile skids in recent program came at the hands of losses to Northwestern and Penn, and an 0-2 start to the Wooden Legacy Tournament in Long Beach, CA over Thanksgiving Break at the hands of Long Beach State and Charleston.  Horrid losses to Rhode Island and Florida stacked onto the slow start – and with a home tilt against a tough Texas team leading into BIG EAST play, many believed that the worst was yet to come.

But we all know how the rest of the Friars’ story played out for the rest of the year. After a 70-48 obliteration of Texas, Providence went on to go 12-6 against conference opponents, good enough to earn them the 4-seed in the BIG EAST Tournament, later cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.  It was truly one of the more incredible comeback stories that Ed Cooley has authored over his prestigious career.

Now, after nearly ten long months without college basketball, the Friars don’t find themselves in nearly as concerning of a position as last year, but they’ve exhibited their fair share of trouble to whet our appetites. Excluding the “fly-by” games against Fairfield and Fairleigh Dickinson at Alumni Hall, Providence struggled its way through the Maui Invitational, its one multi-team event of the year. 

Tough losses came to Indiana (79-58) and Alabama (88-71), and a scrappy one-point win against a Davidson team that the Friars should have handled far more easily.  An expert analysis isn’t required to figure out why Providence got off to such a slow start – they weren’t ready to go.

“I’m not very happy with the way we played in this tournament at all,” remarked Ed Cooley at the end of the tournament. “There are so many holes in our team, so I have to get with our staff and figure it out, rotations, whatever. At the end of the day we have to play some tough kids who, systematically, we want to play.”

Providence has now gone 3-1 in their last four contests, three of them against BIG EAST foes.  They certainly have not come easy; they collected wins against Seton Hall (80-77) and DePaul (95-90) in a total of three overtime periods, and fought hard for their December 9th win in Fort Worth against Big 12 foe TCU. 

“We’re still a work in progress,” Cooley told the media after their 95-90 double-overtime win on Sunday over DePaul.  “We just happened to turn it up in that second overtime.”

So far this year, Providence has shown us a team that can be reasonably viewed as “dangerously top-heavy,” leaning significantly on the offensive efforts of its more tenured contributors.  The senior Nate Watson has been nothing short of formidable in the paint so far, grabbing 19.3 points-per-game and adding in just a bit over 6 boards. AJ Reeves, although inconsistent, has been a fine contributor as well. Everyone else – transfers Jared Bynum and Noah Horchler included – needs to find their place in a complex high-major program.

And then, there’s David Duke.

PIC: Providence College Athletics

The Rhode Islander through-and-through, David Duke grew up on the streets of Elmhurst, the neighborhood adjacent to the Providence College campus.   Duke was described as nothing short of a generational talent at Classical High School in downtown Providence, and transferred to Cushing Academy in Massachusetts for heightened development & exposure.  He was recruited heavily by major Power 5 programs – Virginia Tech and Florida, to name a few – but he knew Providence would be where he cemented his legacy.

“The coaching staff, particularly Coach Cooley, made me feel the most comfortable,” Duke told Forbes last March.  “I felt like he was the most genuine coach. The situation I would be coming into was the perfect situation.”

Sure enough, in his two seasons in the Friar black & white, David Duke has been the player that Cooley imagined he’d become. He scored at least ten points in 21 of the team’s 31 games last year, and started every single one of them.  Duke’s 12 points per game ranked second on the team, only behind All-BIG EAST Second Team selection Alpha Diallo, who is currently seeking to play professionally. Duke posted a career-high 36 points in a near road win at Creighton last year, and dished out 8 assists in the dominating win against Georgetown on New Years’ Eve in 2019. He even collected 10 boards at home against Villanova last January.

Duke can even fearlessly get to the paint, regardless of if it’s draped with six-ten power forwards; here’s a look of him effortlessly beating a few defenders to grab a bucket last week against Butler.

This year, David Duke remains one of two starters Providence will return from 2019-20; naturally, they’ll rely on him to inherit most of the offensive contributions this year.

But Duke’s main task this year? Becoming the leader the Friars know he can be.

That’s what Ed Cooley charged Duke with accomplishing over the summer. With the doors locked on the Ruane Center for most of the offseason, it was tough to get shots up and have access to team facilities. So Duke went to work, and tried to become the master of the skill of leadership.  He focused on every single team member on the roster – what makes them tick, their strengths & weaknesses, and how he can help them succeed. 

“I made a conscious effort to be more vocal, be that presence, and be somebody that is level-headed and not let my emotions get the best of me,” Duke told College Hoops Digest in October. “I’m setting an example for the younger guys, as well. The responsibility is a lot larger, but that’s what it takes to be a leader. I’m ready for it.”

“I’ve said this a lot lately,” said Ed Cooley at BIG EAST Media Day in October. “David is the hardest working player I’ve coached. I’ve been in coaching for 28 years, and a head coach for 15 years now. David lives in the gym, works at his game, and it’s paying off.”

“What makes him special is he’s able to play on both sides of the ball,” continued Cooley. “He’s one of the best defenders in the country. He works at his game. He’s a great teammate, he’s really improved his leadership skills – this team will go as far as he, and a few other veterans, take us. He’s earned the right to be a First-Team All-Conference player. His work ethic is second-to-none, and his ability is mind-boggling. I’m proud of him, but it’s something that he’s earned.”

So far, it’s been smooth sailing for David Duke. With each contest, he has clearly shown that his gameplay on both sides of the ball, as Cooley told us, has improved.  He’s averaging 19.7 points-per-game through the first 9 matches of the season, and with just a tick under 4 assists-per game, his desire to create for others remains omnipresent. 

Now, with Creighton, Xavier, and Marquette on the schedule over the first week of 2021, Duke’s focus will be centered on learning to become the “go-to-guy” for the Friars, while learning to inspire his teammates to succeed.

“We are showing him that (he) can take over games on both sides of the ball,” said Ed Cooley. “You have to pick your time & points where you want to be dominant. I always say, the best players make plays when they have to.  David is going to learn to pick his points on how to take over a game. He’ll have a different target on him this year as we’ve lost some really good players, but his leadership is going to be very important. The film will help him, the daily conversations, and continuing to instill confidence in our players to get them to over-perform.”

PIC: Brian Fluharty, USA TODAY Sports

We’ve seen Duke take ownership and accountability over his team’s performance so far this year, even when the Friars had less-than-desirable performances.

“We’re a long way from where we need to be,” said Duke after Providence’s 1-2 showing at the Maui Invitational. “We’ve just gotta chip away and try to get there.”

And, accountability for the team’s lack of performance on both sides of the ball, just as Ed Cooley had mentioned: “When we’re not getting so many stops, then it’s really tough on the offensive end,” recalled Duke.  “You put a lot of pressure to put the ball in the basket when you can’t stop the other team from scoring.” 

In a year that has already been full of inconsistent from the remainder of the Friars depth, David Duke looks to lead Providence into the top-tier of the BIG EAST, and ultimately, back to the status they had last year as one of the most formidable teams in the nation to have to face in a playoff game.  Just as Cooley told us, Duke knows the Friars will ride-and-die with his performance.

“It’s all about how you push yourself,” Duke told Kevin McNamara before the 2020-21 season. “All summer I knew how hard I had to go. I tried to put myself in game situations. Now that we’re back on campus and getting ready for the season I’m in the gym a lot. I want to show the younger guys what it takes, too.”

In a fairly youthful Friars contingent, David Duke can make his mark as the inspirational leader that Ed Cooley knows he can be.