PROVIDENCE – As Ed Cooley and his Providence players posed for pictures, signed autographs and accepted one congratulatory handshake after another, the next mountain to climb started to come into focus.
While the sea of adulation that engulfed the Friars at Alumni Hall Sunday night was a fitting tribute to the program’s distinction as 2014 Big East Tournament champions, it’s time to shift gears and turn the page.
“We came to win the Big East Championship, but we also want to go to the blue carpet and handle some business,” expressed junior LaDontae Henton. “We have enough business to handle in North Carolina.”
Hearing Henton mention “blue” is fitting because the color of PC’s next foe happens to wear blue. The Tar Heels are also routinely mentioned as one of college basketball’s blue bloods.
Come Friday night, the 11th seeded Friars and sixth seeded Tar Heels will meet on the banks of San Antonio’s famed River Walk (7:20 p.m. tip). The two schools earned the distinction as the 67th and 68th schools revealed in the final regional unveiled by CBS. Providence and UNC were placed in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional. Joining them in Texas is No. 3 Iowa State and North Carolina Central.
“North Carolina is one of the famous colleges. They’re always on TV and we’ve scouted them without even knowing it,” stated Providence senior Ted Bancroft. “By the end of the day, we’ll know a lot more about them once we go through the film.”
Prior to Providence’s name appearing on the video board at Alumni, time was taken to welcome the newly crowned Big East champs back to campus. Before the Friars stepped onto the floor, snippets from Cooley’s introductory press conference from nearly three years ago were shown. Many of the coach’s words from back then rang true, no more than when he quipped, “standing on top of that conference one day.”
Cooley said the idea of going back in time and reminding the estimated 3,000 fans on hand of just how far the Friars have come under his stewardship – from four Big East wins his first year, to an appearance in the NIT quarterfinals his second year, to Big East victors in his third year – came to him on the car ride to the college Sunday afternoon.
“I wanted to give people perspective on where we were three short years ago. Don’t ever lose perspective of that,” Cooley stated. “I believe what I say ... I had goose bumps when I listened to it.”
Fittingly, seniors Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts carried the tournament trophy out on the floor. Cooley addressed the crowd first and reminded them that because the Friars succeeded in obtaining the Big East’s automatic bid, there was no reason to feel apprehensive.
“What bubble? That bubble is popped!” Cooley exclaimed.
Batts, Henton and Cotton spoke with Cotton going last. Not surprisingly, the MVP of the Big East Tournament received the loudest ovation.
“We’ve been through some ups and downs, but thank you to the fans for sticking with us,” said Cotton. “We still have a little bit more work to do.”
In order, the South, West and Midwest Regionals were released. When it came time to shine the spotlight on the East, the remaining locations for the second- and third-round sites were Washington’s Spokane, North Carolina’s Raleigh, San Antonio and Buffalo.
When PC’s name appeared, shouts of joy erupted at the intersection of Eaton Street and River Avenue. For the first time since 2004, the Friars were officially part of the NCAA Tournament discussion.
“It’s been amazing and a dream come true for me,” said sophomore Josh Fortune. “I always wanted to get a Big East Tournament title, so it’s been good.”
A tired but happy Cooley was appreciative of the strong turnout, saying, “These people don’t have to come out, but this tells you how much people in Rhode Island love the Friars.”
Cooley and his assistants planned to get down to brass tacks regarding the Tar Heels as soon as the last jubilant Friar follower vacated Alumni. The players will take Monday off before returning to practice on Tuesday.
“We’ll rest our minds but at the same time get prepared for the tournament,” said Fortune.
North Carolina was one of the true enigmas this season. A preseason Top-25 team, the Tar Heels finished non-conference play with as many impressive wins (Michigan State, Louisville) as baffling losses (home to Belmont, at UAB). On Jan. 20, they sat at 11-7 overall and 1-4 in ACC play.
From the ashes rose Marcus Paige, James Michael McAdoo and the rest of the Tar Heels, who rattled off 12 straight wins before dropping their regular season finale at Duke. North Carolina had a one-game stay in the ACC Tournament with Pittsburgh winning 80-75 in the quarters.
“They’ve always got great guys on their team and a great coach (in Roy Williams),” said PC sophomore Tyler Harris, who is familiar with the Tar Heels after spending his freshman year at North Carolina State.
“We’ve got our hands full,” said Cooley. “We’re just looking to get lucky and move on.”
Dangling before the Friars are a pair of carrots. Should they win two games in Texas, their prize would entail a return trip to Madison Square Garden, site of the East finals. Should PC once again conquer New York City, Cooley & Co. would head back to the Lone Star State for the Final Four. A champion will be crowned at AT&T Stadium, home to the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
“Something big is going to happen in Texas,” smiled Cooley.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03