There is no way to overstate the importance of Ryan Gomes' decision to return to Providence for his senior season.
"When you have a top player like a Ryan Gomes, a lot hinges on their return," Providence coach Tim Welsh said. "It gives your whole program a boost. The thing with Ryan is, he makes his teammates better, and his returning is a great benefit for our program. He created a lot of excitement by coming back."
Gomes averaged 18.9 points and 9.4 rebounds as a junior, becoming just the fourth player in Providence history to earn first-team All-America honors. He's on pace to join Jimmy Walker and Eric Murdock as the only Friars to score 2,000 career points.
And here's the bottom line for what Gomes' presence means for Providence: The Friars have a chance to make their first back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances since 1989 and 1990.
FRONTCOURTProvidence's frontcourt will undergo significant changes, even with Gomes' return. Center Marcus Douthit was a second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers, and small forward Rob Sanders left the team following the Friars' first-round NCAA tournament loss. (Sanders, however, enrolled in classes over the summer and was hoping to be reinstated to school. Even if he does return as a full-time student, Sanders still would have to convince Welsh to take him back.)
There are no obvious choices to step in for either Douthit or Sanders. Welsh will give Randall Hanke, a 6-foot-10 freshman, a long look at center. Hanke can block shots, which is a prized commodity in the middle of PC's zone defense. He can shoot the ball well for a big guy, too. In all likelihood, though, Welsh will start Tuukka Kotti. The 6-9 senior is a natural forward, but his experience and toughness might give him an edge over Hanke.
Welsh might not find a true small forward to make up for the unexpected loss of Sanders, who was one of the Big East's top athletes. As a result, the Friars might go with a three-guard lineup. Freshmen DeSean White and Charlie Burch could battle for playing time.
The unsettled situation up front means more pressure on Gomes. He should be ready after dropping 15 pounds in anticipation of the draft.
"I think the experience of testing the waters in the NBA is going to help him," Welsh said.
BACKCOURTProvidence's biggest strength, other than Gomes, is the backcourt triumvirate of Donnie McGrath, Dwight Brewington and Gerald Brown. McGrath started at the point as both a freshman and a sophomore, while Brewington and Brown were key reserves last season as freshmen.
Much hinges on McGrath this year. He averaged 10.0 points and 3.4 assists last season, but he shot only 39.2 percent from the field. In addition, McGrath slumped late in the season.
"He's got to have a balance," Welsh said. "He's got to look for his shot, but he's playing the point and he tries to make sure everyone's involved."
Brewington, who started six games a year ago, averaged 5.7 points and displayed solid defensive ability. Brown got a late start, enrolling in school after the first semester and joining the team in December. Since McGrath, Brewington and Brown all stand 6-4 or taller, Welsh thinks a three-guard lineup could work.
"I think we'll have good depth at the guard spot," Welsh said. "We'll try to do some things to take advantage of that."
FINAL ANALYSISProvidence has a long and proud history, but some interesting shortcomings. For instance, no Providence player has ever been a two-time All-Big East first-teamer. No Providence player has ever won the conference's Player of the Year award. And Providence hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1997.
The Friars could change all that this season. Gomes' return makes anything possible, but it'll take another All-America-type season from Gomes plus a whole lot more to repeat last year's 20-9 record. The Friars need their backcourt to take the load off a developing frontcourt. Kotti must hold down the fort inside until Hanke is ready. And someone besides Gomes and McGrath has to become a consistent offensive threat.