PROVIDENCE — Vincent Council provided the type of response that epitomizes the mindset of the Providence College Friars heading into the Big East Tournament.
To summarize, the junior doesn’t expect the Friars to be a one-and-done casualty, their season ending at the hands of Seton Hall on Day 1 of the five-day mad dash leading up to a hoops coronation at Madison Square Garden.
“We wanted to play Seton Hall,” remarked Council after Ed Cooley’s PC club participated in Monday’s pre-Big Apple practice session at Alumni Hall. “We already beat Louisville [the Friars would face Rick Pitino’s Cardinals on Wednesday should they get past their first-round foe on Tuesday night]. If we win those two games, we get a tough Marquette team on Thursday.”
It wasn’t Council’s intention to fan the flames and provide bulletin-board material for PC’s opponents to post in the locker room. Looking at the road ahead, the point guard’s reassurance – not cockiness as Council did not waver or hesitate upon offering said proclamation – likely stems from two important criteria that dovetail with one another quite nicely.
In the land of matchups and brackets, Providence didn’t receive what would be coined a “killer” draw. In facing the 10th-seeded Pirates – Kevin Willard’s team has dropped three of their last four including a shocking 86-58 loss to last-place DePaul this past Saturday – the Friars can look back on the team’s lone encounter this season and know they were neck and neck with Seton Hall.
Remember, the Jan. 7 meeting at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center was a one-point game late when the Pirates ripped off nine consecutive points to pull out an eventual 66-57 victory, an outcome that added more pages to the “close but no cigar” catalog that often times has come to define Cooley’s first season at Providence.
“We’ve got to continue to execute down the stretch because we’ve been in every game,” Cooley said. “It really comes down to the last four minutes.”
One of the rare instances when PC didn’t visit Heartbreak Hill came three days following the loss to Seton Hall, an emphatic 90-59 beatdown of a Louisville club that will be waiting in the wings come Wednesday.
“I like who we drew,” freshman LaDontae Henton said. “I like our first matchup [versus the Pirates] and if we win that game we’ll get to our second matchup, but we want to take it one game at a time.”
The PC players may have sized up the pairings, yet don’t tell Cooley that advancing deeper in this landmine of a conference tourney is a walk through Central Park. “There’s no favorable game in the Big East. It’s a war every night. I think the Big East should have 11 or 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament. I’m very biased saying that, but this is a brutal, brutal league night in and night out.”
The other area of note is that this PC club is now armed with the type of swagger that could make Cooley & Co. as difficult and tricky a No. 15 seed that’s lurking out there. Winning two of the past three games certainly helps in the morale department, a turnabout of events that has elevated the spirits of a group of players that has spent much of the season wondering if they would ever catch a break.
“I believe we now understand what (Cooley) has been saying to us all along. You can win games if you play how you practice,” Henton said.
Said Cooley, “We pride ourselves in being as positive as we can. We understand that we have some shortcomings, but as coaches we need to accentuate those strengths in order to keep the guys upbeat.”
It’s hard to imagine this Friar team following the lead from the 2011 UConn outfit that went on an unfathomable run in the Big East tourney, cutting down the nets after winning an unheard of five games in five days. That said, the opportunity for Providence to hang around New York City for a few days is something that bears watching because it might just happen.
“We’re going to play loose and free,” Cooley said.
The importance of good marksmanship
PC’s past two games revealed just how important it is for this team to make shots from the outside. In the come-from-behind 72-70 win against Connecticut, the Friars knocked down one 3-pointer after another to finish the game with 10 makes. Contrast that with the 75-69 defeat at Notre Dame, a game that revealed what can happen when shots aren’t falling through the net. Providence misfired on all 10 of its 3-ball attempts in the first half in what was a frigid 4-of-20 output.
“It’ll be a big difference for us if we can hit 3-pointers in this tournament,” Henton noted.
Aura and mystique now playing at MSG
Even as a kid growing up in Michigan, Henton said he always dreamed one day that he would get to play in an actual game at Madison Square Garden. “I’m a Big Ten fan but the Big East is where it’s at,” said a smiling Henton.
For Council, Tuesday night will serve as a homecoming for the Brooklyn native. He’ll also return to a venue where he captured a high school championship while playing at Abraham Lincoln High School.
“It’s the mecca of basketball,” summed up Council. “A lot of good players and games have come through Madison Square Garden.”
Cooley has been in the building hailed as “The World’s Most Famous Arena” as an assistant coach when he worked at Boston College. He admits a new feeling will wash over him upon stepping inside the Garden. “The excitement will be great before the game, but once the ball goes up it’s just like any other gym.”