You know, at some point, these other Big East coaches are REALLY going to need to stop doubting what Ed Cooley and the Providence Friars are capable of.
It seems like every year there’s a routine that happens: Providence gets picked either in the middle or bottom of the Big East pact by the coaches. Fans immediately think that the Friars are underrated. Providence plays their season and has some early losses that make fans think the coaches were right on the money or being generous. By mid-January, the Friars are starting to come together and fans think maybe it’ll be okay. By February the Friars are firing on all cylinders and fans are pointing out how low the Friars were picked compared to where they were. By March the Friars are seeing their name called on Selection Sunday and the fans are relishing in the fact their team exceeded expectations.
Since the formation of the new Big East this has been the routine, but this year was the exception. The Friars were picked 9th in the preseason and many fans felt that was underrated, but not by much. All preseason the story was “the Friars are without Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil…” but nobody ever seemed to finish the thought properly.
The Friars are without Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil…but have head coach Ed Cooley at the helm, which means you can never dismiss them.
Point in case: the Providence Friars, picked 9th out of a possible 10 in the Big East preseason, just wrapped up the regular season finishing 3rd. Not only have they (once again) exceeded expectations, they’ve actually gotten their highest Big East finish since the formation of the new conference.
There are a lot of questions. How did that happen? What did the Friars do? Who stood out? When will the other coaches stop looking stupid and give the Friars their due?
I have spent a ton of time mulling these questions over, and I think now is the appropriate time to try and answer each one.
How did the Friars finish 3rd after being selected 9th in the preseason? What did they do?
Listen, this wasn’t a cakewalk for Providence. It’s not like they came out in the season on game one and made everyone realize what a mistake they had made doubting the Friars. I’m sure if you ask around there’s still plenty of doubt to be had (more on that soon). For now though, let’s talk about how this happened.
The easy answer is ‘the Friars won the games they needed to win and more’ but I feel that statement undersells just what the Friars are made of. Instead, let’s look at this from a roster perspective and a coaching perspective.
From a roster perspective we’re talking about what could be the deepest Providence team we’ve had since Keno Davis’ first year as coach. Gone are the superstars, and in their place comes a litany of options for Coach Cooley to leverage. Rather than teams focus on Dunn and Bentil, they now must manage any number of players on a given night. And boy, did those teams have a guessing game. Before it was “guard Dunn, guard Bentil” and that was a solid foundation for a game plan. But now how do you say “guard Kyron Cartwright, guard Rodney Bullock” when you have emerging superstar Jalen Lindsey making it rain from three point land, or Malik White capable of managing the offense when Kyron is getting smothered? How do you say “focus on locking down Emmitt Holt” when players like Kalif Young and Alpha Diallo both fully capable of contributing when Holt is getting locked down?
The fact is, teams weren’t able to and that’s why Providence won games.
But in all seriousness, it’s a testament to this roster and their ability to make an impact. Gone are the days where we relied on a Kris Dunn, Bryce Cotton, LaDontae Henton, etc. to make our scoring efforts. If Bullock, the leading scorer on this team, doesn’t score a single point in the first 30 minutes, someone else is going to pick up and contribute. Who that person is depends on the game, but someone’s going to do it. And that becomes somewhat of a weapon for the Friars – the element of uncertainty.
Of course, how could you attribute that to the Friars without acknowledging Coach Cooley’s ability to develop that?
What can be said about Cooley’s coaching effort at this point that hasn’t been said already? The man understands what needs to be done to win. He’s not a perfect coach – go on any message board and someone is bound to complain about something as asinine about Cooley’s decision to not call a time out at a certain point in the game – but his ability to have his teams prepared for each game, make adjustments on the fly when the game plan isn’t working, and put trust in his players to execute their game plan for success has been the reason the Friars have exceeded expectations. The question now that coach is signed to a lifetime contract is whether or not we can sign him up for two lifetimes or not.
Who stood out?
The question is how do you pick just one standout player. The fact is, with so many contributors and factors for winning, picking just one stand out player is tough. Heck, picking just a few is tough. The reality is, this team is a standout team because these are all standout players.
I realize that sounds so much like “you’re all winners! Let’s give you all trophies!” but it’s not. When you exceed expectations this much without a superstar on the team, you have to look at how much every player stepped up. Perfect example: Jalen Lindsey was left out to dry by fans. According to most fans he couldn’t do anything right, he was a miss of a recruit, and if you liked him you were stupid.
And look at Lindsey now. Not only is he an absolute monster on offense, he’s gotten much stronger and has become even more of an impact player on defense (he was already excellent these past two years, but many didn’t notice), and he’s now the guy you can trust taking a shot when things are getting down to the wire. Lindsey deserves special recognition in my book because he’s come so far and become a Friar that every fan can get behind. He could end up being a fan favorite a la Weyinmi Efejuku – if he’s not already.
But that’s the thing – he’s just one of many players. Bullock has to be one of the most quiet leading scorers the Friars have ever seen. He can disappear and reappear like a ghost, which no doubt can be frustrating but it’s hard to disregard him when he’s the leading scorer on a team that just went 10-8 in conference. Kyron Cartwright seems much more controlled and disciplined at the point, executing on blinding fast speed and has made big shots when they’ve mattered this season.
I could do this all day, and even dive into the fun we’ll have next season when Ryan Fazekas inevitably makes the jump in skill next year that Lindsey did this year (shutting up the doubters and naysayers once again), but the fact is when you think about “who stood out” the answer is “everyone.”
When will these doubters give Ed Cooley and the Friars their due?
Tough to say on this one. The challenge is that, while Ed Cooley is certainly deserving of all the credit he gets, there are still those out there that need to cast doubt on his ability to coach the Friars.
Lately the chatter for questioning PC has been about how Providence beat Xavier and Creighton while they were injured. To me, that’s an absolutely ridiculous storyline. Were they injured? Absolutely. Did that help Providence? Maybe. Were the wins a sure thing even with the injuries? Absolutely not, and that’s the important part: no matter who these teams did or didn’t have, Providence still had to win these games. If anything, it’s even more frustrating to see because the story shouldn’t be “Providence got lucky with those injuries” since it dismisses the hard work that Ed Cooley and the Friars put into their preparation and execution of a game plan. Let’s also not disregard that injuries are a part of college basketball and happen to every team (especially the Friars).
when will this credit to Cooley and the gang come? My answer: who cares?
But the narratives will continue. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory that media figures are trying to keep the Friars down or whatever, nor do I think that analysts are trying to delegitimize what the Friars have accomplished. I look at those types of perspectives on storylines and place them in the same looney basket as the belief that the Providence Journal is pro-PC/anti-URI or anti-PC/pro-URI based on which team got the front page of the sports section that day. The fact is people are just looking for stories. If I wanted to I could write an entire column that follows that narrative, disputes it, or lands somewhere in the middle. But the real story – the only one that matters come Selection Sunday – is Providence won those games. They weren’t promised wins, they were earned wins. And those are the facts.
So, when will this credit to Cooley and the gang come? My answer: who cares? Keep doubting the Friars. Pick us fifth, sixth, ninth in the Big East. Keep saying “those wins don’t count as much” or something stupid. What difference does it make where they pick the Friars or what they say about the wins. The recognition may come next season, it may never come, but one thing’s for certain – Ed Cooley and the Providence Friars are a winning basketball program that exceeds expectations, and that won’t change anytime soon.