Will Murphy ’23
What a ride. The Providence College Men’s Basketball Team won close game after close game this year, captivating fans across the country. Although their season came to an end following their defeat to the Kansas University Jayhawks in the Sweet 16, this season will be remembered fondly by many for a long time.
It was a season of firsts for the Friars, most notably the first-ever Big East Regular Season Championship win for Providence in their 43 years as members of the conference. Their 27 wins were one away from a program-best, and their 14 conference wins surpassed their previous best by two. If not for an untimely COVID pause in the middle of the season, both of these numbers could have been added to. The Friars were among the nation’s best at closing out tight games, which is a credit not only to the players, but also to the job that head coach Ed Cooley has done. Last weekend, Cooley was named the Naismith College Coach of the Year for the 2021-22 season. Experience was key for Providence, as their starting lineup was one of the oldest in the country, consisting of three graduate transfers, a fifth-year senior, and a senior.
The Friars started the year off hot, picking up several key wins in non-conference play including wins at the University of Wisconsin, at home against Texas Tech University, and at home against in-state rival University of Rhode Island. Excitement built with each win as fans started to believe that something special could be brewing at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. By the time conference play was kicking off, Providence was receiving votes as one of the top 25 teams in the country. However, the road ahead was not an easy one for the Friars, who were scheduled to play two of the top 25 teams in the nation in their first two Big East games, but they were up to the challenge.
Providence knocked off the University of Connecticut on the road and Seton Hall University at home, two teams respectively ranked 20th and 15th in the country. After winning handily at DePaul University, Providence was dealt their first loss in conference play by Marquette University, and many wondered how they would respond. The resiliency and experience shone through in their next outing against St. John’s University, as they bounced back with a solid ten-point win at home.
Unfortunately, the Friars had to postpone their next three games due to COVID issues within the program. Providence responded admirably to the adversity, rattling off seven consecutive wins, two of which were against ranked opponents.
Jared Bynum ’23 knocked down the game-winning shot against Xavier University as the buzzer sounded. The following game was a memorable one, in which the Friars took on Marquette University a day later than scheduled because of a monstrous blizzard. Providence battled back in that game with the help of the electric atmosphere, despite the treacherous conditions.
That stretch of seven straight wins perfectly set up a showdown between two of the top 10 teams in the country at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center: Providence and Villanova University. Although the Friars came up short in that game, the showing was still impressive, with the team putting up 84 points against one of the best teams and defenses in the country.
After their battle with Villanova, Providence would have to face Butler University on the road without star senior guard Al Durham ’22 because of a back injury. Despite falling behind early, the Friars displayed impressive resilience in an overtime victory, maintaining their spot atop the conference standings. Providence then took on Xavier, looking for the season sweep and was given all they could handle by this tough team. The Friars were taken to triple-overtime in a game of the year candidate but pulled it out in the end.
This win put the team in the position to clinch their first-ever Big East regular-season championship with a win in their upcoming matchup with Creighton University. Providence took control early and coasted to a comfortable 20-point victory in a storybook ending for the seniors on their senior night. Providence closed the regular season with a hard-fought loss against Villanova but was heading to Madison Square Garden with the first seed in the Big East Tournament.
The Friars were immediately challenged after arriving in New York with a tough game against Butler in the quarterfinals. Al Durham ’22 nailed a clutch three with just over 30 seconds remaining to put Providence ahead and advance to face Creighton in the semifinals. Creighton came out hot in the semifinals, and Providence was never able to catch up.
Providence then turned their attention to the NCAA tournament to prepare for their sixth trip under coach Cooley in his 11 seasons at the helm. They were awarded the fourth seed in the Midwest Region, with South Dakota State University awaiting them with one of the most high-powered offenses in the country. Coach Cooley did a tremendous job game-planning for South Dakota State’s offense, and Justin Minaya ’22 put on a defensive display against star guard Baylor Scheierman. Providence held South Dakota State to their lowest offensive output of the season and advanced to face 12-seed Richmond University.
The Friars started fast and built a comfortable lead early, shooting the ball efficiently from behind the arc, especially Noah Horchler ’22, who shot four of six from three. Providence kept their foot on the gas and won by 28, the largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game in program history.
The win sent the Friars to their first Sweet 16 in 25 years, where one-seed Kansas University awaited. Providence could not get any shots to drop early, but their defense kept them in the game, going into the half down nine. All year Providence proved they were a resilient bunch, not afraid to go head-to-head with the best of the best, and this trait shone through in the second half. They clawed their way back little by little, eventually taking their first lead of the night with a Horchler bucket with just under six minutes remaining. Kansas responded with a run of their own, and, despite an admirable effort, Providence was unable to overcome the Jayhawks in the end.
This team will be remembered as one of the best in Providence College’s history, and rightfully so.