The Providence Friars had their backs against the wall this season. They weren’t quite out of the conversation, but they had ground they desperately needed to make up. It was going to take winning in the conference as well as some noise in the Big East Tournament if they realistically wanted to turn their NCAA dreams into reality.
The dream was kept alive when the Friars won an OT battle at Butler in what they hoped would be the first of three wins to close out the regular season. But a stumble at Creighton, followed by a surge at Creighton, followed by an OT stumble at Creighton, may have been the nail in the coffin for PC’s NCAA hopes
At the end of the day, the Friars were who they showed us. But what does this mean going forward? Let’s discuss.
Road Warriors and Woes
One of the most common phrases you’ll hear from coaches, experts, and Twitter commentators is that winning on the road is never easy. Providence proved no exception to this rule when they had two OT battles in Indiana and Nebraska – going 1-1 in these affairs – though they ultimately won the game I wasn’t sure they’d win, and lost the game I thought they’d reclaimed.
The road woes I refer to in this subheader actually refer to the Butler game. The Friars had this game convincingly in hand after the first half of regulation, only for the Butler Bulldogs to come out and deliver a gut punch to the Friars that saw them exchanging blows before ultimately closing out the game in overtime.
This was not a novel experience for the Friars, who have struggled to maintain a decent lead against all teams not named St. John’s. For whatever reason, this year’s squad has been allergic to maintaining double-digit leads. I can’t explain it, though I imagine youth and inexperience have something to do with it. Still, the struggle was real for PC in Hinkle, though it wasn’t unfamiliar.
Meanwhile, the Friars did something really inspiring during their trip to Omaha earlier this week: fighting back against seemingly insurmountable odds and taking a decent Bluejays team to OT, almost stealing victory from this Big East frienemy – and Creighton’s hopes for an NCAA bid, too.
The Friars did seem to fold, but it was an inspirational speech from Cooley during a timeout in which he talked about heart, and playing for each other, and holding each other accountable, that rallied this team in a way we’d seen only glimpses of this season. In the Big East, especially at a point in the season where all seems lost, that it a hard thing to do. These are the Friars that fans know and love – the ones that don’t quit no matter what the odds.
Ultimately though, the game was a loss. All the heart in the world doesn’t change the end result now, and for PC that means an NCAA bid is a Big East Tournament Championship away. Unless the Friars can play St. John’s for four games in a row, it’s going to be tough.
Heart and Soul
I do want to talk a bit more about that speech though, because I found it to be the core of what makes Cooley’s coaching and his teams so special to watch and support.
I think the speech that Cooley delivered in the huddle was not something that could be given by just anyone. The Friars seemed lost on defense, confused on offense, and lacked confidence in the decisions they made. Debate the X’s and O’s to your heart’s content – there’s plenty of merit in discussing that – but if there’s no passion, no drive to win, what does it matter? If all basketball took was the better plays drawn up, this game would be no different than Celebrity Bake-Off. Whomever has the best recipe with the best ingredients wins.
But basketball is as much about heart as it is execution. When you lack the heart, you lack the will to win. On the contrary, when you play with heart and soul, special things happen.
Cooley’s teams have always been about heart and soul. It’s what makes these teams so special every year. Play with passion, and you’ll overcome odds you never knew you could. Look no further than UMBC as an example of what passion can do. Hell, look at the Friars’ 2014 Big East Tournament Championship.
I bring this up because I think it was the moment of rediscovery for these players regarding who they are in this sport. If this were a movie, it would be the motivating speech that wills the team – down 50 – to come back and win the championship.
This isn’t a movie, and the Friars may not be winning any championships this year. But with the speech reminding these players who they are, Cooley has set a long term trajectory into play that will hopefully pay off by taking the Friars to the next level, one that fans have not seen in a long, long, long time.
So Now What?
We have one regular season game left: a Senior Day rematch with the Butler Bulldogs. After that, the Friars head to New York, likely for a Wednesday play-in game for the Big East Tournament.
I don’t know what will happen. Truly, I don’t. I’ve made a lot of predictions this year, and I’ve made a lot of commentary and observations, but with Cooley’s teams, there’s always a late surprise. And maybe that surprise this year is the season ends not with a bang but a whimper. If so, that’s okay.
The Friars will be back, but I don’t need to tell you that. As long as they have a game to play, they’ll compete. And when the Friars compete, well…good things have happened in the past, so let’s hope for the same now.