Friars Locked in During NCAA Tournament
Kansas University and the First Sweet Sixteen in 25 Years is Ahead
Joseph Quirk ’23
The month of March is synonymous with two things: luck and madness. Despite all the chaos and craziness the other 11 months of the year can offer, few have a case to match up against the month of St. Patrick’s Day, the day of the year most associated with luck and chaos, and of course, March Madness, otherwise known as the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
There are 64 teams invited to the tournament, any of whom can win on a given day. If you are a college basketball fan, this is the best time of the year. And with all the luck that comes with St. Patrick’s Day and all the luck needed to win in March, the “luckiest team in the country” needs all the luck they can heading into the big dance.
The Providence College Friars Men’s Basketball team headed into this weekend excited. Fresh off their first Big East regular season title in school history, the Friars would own the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament.
The Big East tournament itself was celebrating its 40th anniversary of being hosted by Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena. The biggest stage, in the biggest city, the Friar fans came out in force. Descending on MSG and New York City, head coach Ed Cooley was quick to tab MSG as “the Dunk South” as during the Friars first game against Butler University, loud cheers in support of the Friars were heard all afternoon.
The Butler Bulldogs were coming off an overtime thriller of a win the night before over Xavier University. However, in a start like far too many this season, the Friars started off slow. They had trouble scoring and playing defense.
The only Friar who really showed up was big man Nate Watson ’22, who finished the game leading the Friars with 26 points, added seven rebounds, and a block. Redshirt junior guard Jared Bynum ’23 also had a solid afternoon with 16 points. But once again, the Friars came back and gritted out a win, a common theme for the “luckiest team in the country” this season.
When asked on Friday about his team’s performance, Coach Cooley referenced Thursday’s matchup saying, “Quite frankly I didn’t think we played well yesterday, and we just found a way to win.” This has been the theme of the Friars entire dream season, gutting out ways to win.
Prior to Friday’s matchup against Creighton University, the Friars were 18-20 in games decided by 10-points or less and 12-14 in games decided by five points or less. Both of the losses were to Villanova University, who won both games by a total margin of victory of seven points.
The Friars’ total record was 25-4, meaning close to half of their wins were decided by fewer than five points and just over half were decided by 10 points. That is a scary thin margin of victory; even though it can be said that this is a veteran savvy team that finds ways to win, which is invaluable in March, it still is a dangerously fine line.
The other two losses the Friars had suffered this season to a team not named Villanova University were by 32 points in an away game to Marquette University and by 18 points to the University of Virginia. Safe to say that when it rains, it pours on the Friars.
On Friday the Friars played the Creighton Blue Jays, the No. 4 seed in the tournament coming off a thriller against Marquette. And Creighton dominated.
The Friars struggled once they let Creighton get on a big run in the first half and could never regain any momentum. Their defense fell apart. They couldn’t score either inside or outside and Creighton big man Ryan Kalkbrenner, the Big East defensive player of the year, dominated to the tune of 15 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. This, added with Alex O’Connell’s team leading 18 points, Arthur Kaluma’s 17 points and Trey Alexander’s 15 points led Creighton to an easy 42-27 victory.
After the game coach Cooley spoke on trying to keep his squad motivated, saying, “When you play a game like this you know A) your ego can get shattered and B) your confidence can get shattered, and I just want them to understand that it is only one game. Obviously, it’s a really big stage, great arena, great support, great crowd, that’s what the Big East tournament is about.”
Coach Cooley also noted that he thought that the team’s best basketball was ahead of them and that they had earned the right to play in the coming NCAA tournament. He remained firm in his belief that whomever the Friars face next, they can beat.
The concern, however, must be the slow starts. Cooley’s team can pull comebacks against Depaul and Butler any day, but when facing some of the top competition from the Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC, that may be a much taller task.
Plus, it needs to be remembered that the 18-point loss to Virginia, the Friar’s first of the season, came on a neutral court, to a worse team on the second day of a back-to-back. That was the exact same scenario that the Friars faced when they were blown out by Creighton. When the tournament arrives, the Friars’ are going to need to be able to play consistently regardless of their schedule or location. .
Of course, the Friars’ success in the tourney will in large part be due to their seeding. Coach Cooley said that it was “something I can’t control” and that “our body of work, I just don’t want our seeding to be determined by one game.”
In terms of using this game as a humbling experience and one to rally around, Cooley said he reminded his team about their first Big East loss of the season, a 32-point loss to Marquette, after which his squad won 8 straight. However, he noted that “we don’t need to win 8.”
Since that embarrassment in the Big East tournament however, the Friars are 2-0. On Sunday, the Friars returned to a roaring crowd after a big weekend in Buffalo to kick off the March Madness tournament.
The Friars started by knocking off 13 seed South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits were a popular pick to upset the Friars in the first round, with an electric offense that was one of the top in the nation and a hot streak of 21 straight wins.
But the Friars took care of business and punched their ticket to the round of 32, where they met a hot University of Richmond team, fresh off winning their own conference tournament and beating the Big 10 champion Iowa State Hawkeyes in the first round.
Still doubted, having the second consecutive game against a double digit seed and second consecutive game where they were favored by as little as under three points, the Friars routed the Spiders 79-51, in what looked like their best and most well-rounded game of the season.
Now the Friars head to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997, where they will take on the University of Kansas, a blue-blood program and number one-seed in the Midwest region.
The Friars can handle the Jayhawks, assuming they can lock down guards Ochai Agbaji and Remy Martin. The Jayhawks are a good team, coached by legendary coach Bill Self.
While this is true, this is not Self’s best squad he has ever had. If the Friars can shoot the way they have been the last couple of games, they have a legitimate shot to be in the Elite Eight.
If they can manage to pull off a upset, as Kansas is currently favored by over 7 points, then they will secure a date with another team in the double-digit seeds, either a cinderella University of Miami (FL) team or a hot Iowa State University team with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
All eyes will be on the Friars this Friday at 7:15 p.m. as the Friars tip-off against Kansas at the United Center in Chicago.