Ed Cooley has been preparing his Friars for a situation like this since arriving at Providence three years ago.
Lose expected breakout star Kris Dunn to season-ending surgery in November? That can be solved by turning to each other.
Lose in overtime, double-overtime and by 30 points to Villanova in a span of eight days in December? That can be solved by sticking together.Drop four out of five in the beginning of February and put yourself on the very edge of the bubble? That can be solved by sticking together.
The Friars stuck together like crazy glue, and reaped the rewards of that cohesiveness on Saturday in the form of its first Big East tournament title in 20 years and locking its first spot in the NCAA tournament in 10 years.
“Our bond is something I haven’t seen or been a part of on any team in my life like this team has,” senior guard Bryce Cotton said. “We all love each other, we all see each other as brothers. That helps the camaraderie on the court.”
When Cooley took over as head coach of the Friars on March 22, 2011, he didn’t have a timeframe for bringing this downtrodden program back to its previous heights. Instead, he had faith in his process which included a big dose of chemistry.
“We work on facilitating that bond, that whole we, together, family Friars attitude,” Cooley said. “We’ve built that from the time I took this job and it’s taken us a while to get there. It all came together this year with all the adversity we faced.”
If there was going to be a year that the Friars were going to feel and win like a family, this year was probably the year. The starting lineup features four two-year starters, including two four-year starting seniors.
The benefits of Cooley’s system became fully apparent in the Big East tournament. The Friars beat St. John’s, Seton Hall and Creighton en route to the title and an 11 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We really believed in each other and we are a really unselfish group,” forward Kadeem Batts said of his team’s run to the Big East title. “We just made the right plays. We moved the ball well and made the extra pass.”
For the seniors like Batts and Cotton, this is a far cry from where the program was when they arrived. They were a part of a combined four Big East wins in their first two seasons while the program hadn’t won a postseason game since a first-round win in the 2003 NIT.
Things started to turn around last season, one year after Cooley had arrived after spending the previous five years as head coach at Fairfield. After a third consecutive four-win conference season in Cooley’s first year, the Friars finished 9-9 last year and made the NIT.
In the NIT, the Friars beat Charlotte and Robert Morris before falling to eventual champion Baylor in the quarterfinals.“That was the first time that anybody on our team had any postseason in college,” Cotton said. “It gave us a little taste to see what a winning side is like and we wanted more.”
As it turned out, that would only be the first step in the revitalization of the Friars. The revival of the program has also seeped out to the students and fans.
“We had an event to watch the selection show and all the fans were there and we just got so much love,” Batts said. “We continue to get so much love. It’s just a great feeling to be at Providence right now.”
Now that Providence has made the tournament, the next step in bringing the program all the way back is to make a run in the NCAA tournament. The last time the Friars won a game in the NCAA tournament was when it was a 10 seed in 1997 and beat Chattanooga in the Sweet 16.
If things start getting tough in the tournament, the Friars don’t need to turn back to that run for inspiration. All it has to do is look back to the way it responded to the losing streak in February.
“Our chemistry is second to none,” Cooley said. “Our guys know their roles, they know what they want to do. So it’s all good. It’s all good.”
Providence has already answered questions about how it would handle adversity this year. If the Friars makes a run in the tournament, there will be a good amount of discussion on how they did it.
The answer will probably be: They did it together.