PROVIDENCE – Validation that the Providence College men’s basketball program is heading in the right direction came Sunday night in the form of receiving a first-round home game in the National Invitational Tournament.
PC will welcome Charlotte to The Dunk Wednesday night for a 7:15 tip. The Friars are seeded fourth in a region while the 49ers of the Atlantic 10 are the fifth seed. Wednesday’s winner advances to face the victor of Kentucky-Robert Morris, a contest set for Tuesday night. Second-round NIT matchups are scheduled for March 21-25.
The Friars are postseason participants for the first time since 2009, a season that also culminated with an NIT berth. The four-year gap between a postseason appearance of any kind is a reminder that the rebuilding efforts of Ed Cooley are showing serious promise.
To see the Friars qualify for postseason hoops in Cooley’s second season at the helm should be viewed as significant progress – particularly in a campaign that saw so many lineup combinations based on injuries and player availability.
To put into context what Cooley accomplished this season -- the Friars were 17-14 overall, 9-9 in the Big East -- let’s revisit the past.
Tim Welsh’s second season at Providence was 1999-2000 and ended with an 11-19 record, 4-12 in the Big East. Keno Davis’ second year at PC proved just as disastrous with the 2009-10 edition posting a 12-19 record, 4-14 in the Big East. On top of all the losing, Welsh and Davis each had major off-season crisis issues that occurred in the springtime following their second seasons on the Friar bench.
In both cases, Welsh and Davis stood off to the side and watched as school administrators came down with harsh sentences that led to the dismissal of several would-be returning players. Welsh was able to recover from having his name associated with an ugly and unfortunate off-campus incident involving a group of troubled players that he recruited to lead the Friars to the 2001 NCAA Tournament.
Davis was not as fortunate after losing two players who viciously attacked an innocent student while a third – Jamine “Greedy” Peterson – was booted from Providence after his involvement in an undisclosed incident that took place in a dorm room on school grounds. Clearly in over his head, Davis would go on to oversee a second consecutive sub.-500 finish in 2010-11 before getting fired with five years remaining on his contract.
Cooley was not completely immune to the second-year woes that plagued his coaching predecessors, though it should be noted that his problems were with injury-related matters as opposed to criminal issues.
As he mentioned Sunday night, this year’s PC team has had to deal with injuries to Vincent Council and Kris Dunn that kept both point guards out for long stretches and resulted in an interesting lesson regarding how a coaching staff can squeeze the most out of a barebones player rotation. Forward Sidiki Johnson was hailed as a major frontcourt addition, yet it should be noted that the Friars’ season kicked into high gear not too long after the sophomore removed himself from the equation.
Ultimately, Cooley succeeded in distancing himself from the second-year pangs that gnawed away at the feet of Welsh and Davis. He was able to coax nine Big East wins out of an ever-evolving player cast and solidify a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament. While recent losses to Connecticut and Cincinnati are stone-cold reminders that the Friars still have a way to go before they can even think about sitting at the big boys table, for the first time in quite a number of years, there’s living and breathing proof that an upswing is taking place on the Smith Hill campus.
“I think if you asked the fans two years ago whether the Friars would be in the NIT in 24 months, would they take it? Absolutely,” Cooley stated.
The NIT is limited to 32 teams. For the selection committee to bestow the Friars with a home date furthers the point that the enthusiastic man in charge is succeeding in his quest to undo the sins from an inglorious recent past.
“I think [rolling out the welcome mat for Charlotte] is a credit to our players, our staff and administration. It’s really tough to get a home game in this prestigious field,” Cooley said. “Am I disappointed that we didn’t get to the NCAA Tournament? Absolutely, that’s why I came here, but when you have a big perspective on where we’re trying to go, this is a step in the right direction. Our kids are learning what it is to win and to be part of winning.”
Added sophomore LaDontae Henton, “One of the reasons why I came to this program is to try and help it play in March. We accomplished that this year and coach is proud of us.”
Cooley’s wish of seeing his team afforded the chance to keep on playing did not go unanswered. Regardless of how long the Friars hang around in the NIT, it’s time to take a moment to realize that a coach who’s in Year Two at the helm has succeeded in pulling the program out of the depths of despair.
“We took a step forward this year and (the progress in the right direction) means a lot to us and the program,” concurred Henton.