“Fans can anticipate things about the season before they even happen.”
Remember that line? I wrote that back in November at the start of the 2019-2020 Providence Friars basketball season. The article, written just two games into the season, was a celebration of the promise the Friars were showing for the year. Towards the end of the article I summarized my thoughts on this team, that “this team has caused me to think we have a new, exciting type of Friars team…A new story in both the Friars history under Ed Cooley and also in the greater program.”
You know, in a way I was right.
This has been one of the most fascinating seasons ever. Certainly in the time I’ve been a Friars fan, but also maybe just in the history of PC basketball. In my own writings of this team I have been sullen, frustrated, optimistic, reassured, uncertain, and a wave of other emotions.
The Friars basketball record is an indication of that. They were 7-6 in the non-conference, with terrible losses to boot. In the most competitive conference in the country they’re now 11-6, on their way to possibly get the most regular season wins in conference ever under Ed Cooley. They beat every single conference opponent at least once, something that has never happened before. They went from not even in content for the NCAA Tournament to a firm lock and playing for seeding.
The team came together as well. I wondered where the disconnect was, and if they had an identity. For awhile they didn’t. Then the younger guys stepped up, leading me to believe that maybe it was their time to lead and carry this team forward after this season. It wasn’t long after that had been written that the seniors took their game to a whole new level. Diallo, Pipkins, and Young have all looked like completely transformed players. Diallo returned to the game that made him successful, Young became a monster under the post, and Pipkins is the point guard we always believed he would be. The younger guys – Watson, Duke, Reeves, Gantt – have also continued to contribute.
Cooley, too, has transformed his coaching for the better. Adjustments, strategies, lineups all have evolved and been shook up during the season. The players have bought into Cooley’s strategy and Cooley has given them a strategy and identity to buy into.
But like I said, I was “Right” in a way. We didn’t take the path I thought we would take in early November to get to where we are – in fact we diverged quite a bit. But here we are, with a record and results that speak for themselves and a position that we could capitalize on. Can we make a run in March? That question didn’t seem relevant for a long time during the season, but now it’s a question myself, fans, and many in the world of college basketball are asking with earnest.
To better understand this team I’ve tried to find another, similar team in Friar history that I could compare them to. The closest I came was the 1997 Elite Eight Providence Friars team, coached by Pete Gillen. I thought about them because, from what I knew about the team, they struggled at points during the regular season as well and had to come together to overcome their challenges and make the run in March that they eventually made. But this isn’t a perfect 1:1 comparison because the challenges, though prevalent, were different with the ’97 team. The talent was different too. And the BIG EAST in ’97 wasn’t what it was in 2020.
I tried this with other known Friar teams throughout the eons, but nothing synched. And I think that’s probably a good thing. The 2019-2020 Friars are their own team, have their own identity, and if things continue to go the way they have, they will have their own place in Friar history.
I once called them a blank fortune cookie, and they seem to have really made their own fortunes since then. I think, in the narrative of this season, the Friars have shown that they can be the team we believed them to be and now they believe they can be as well. Most important of all, this Friars team has become a joy to watch after a struggle at various points during the season.
And really, isn’t the struggle a part of it? We as fans (of any team really) want to believe our team will go undefeated every year and win it all, but the truth is stories are made through trials and tribulations. It is the struggle that shapes the narrative of success not just the victory itself. The struggle must lead to a payoff, otherwise the struggle was for nothing, and I think the Friars are leading to that payoff now.
There is still work to do. The story isn’t over, and as long as the story can continue the opportunity to be something meaningful is still there. The Friars have positioned themselves to make waves, and now they must make them. Because, if they can, we truly will have had a new team in Friars’ history under Ed Cooley. We will have moved this program forward, like fans have wanted since the start of the year. And most important of all the struggle will have been worth it.