As the celebration he had envisioned countless times unfolded around him, Ed Cooley felt a sense of nostalgia.
After clinching the Big East regular-season title with a win over Creighton Feb. 26, the Providence men’s basketball coach took a moment to detach himself from the chaos and reflect on the days when he would sneak in through the back door to catch PC games as a kid. The lifelong Friar fan couldn’t help but beam at how far the program has come.
“Wow,” he thought to himself. “Anything’s possible.”
“I wasn’t standing there as the coach,” Cooley said. “I was standing there as the young boy who had a dream and a vision to one day be part of something.”
The Friars (25-5, 14-3) are at the tail end of one of the most historic seasons in program history. They’ve made deep runs in March before, but they’ve never pieced together a regular season quite like this one. Picked to finish seventh in the conference’s preseason poll, they relied on a savvy, senior-laden group.
“I felt like that was a slap in the face,” graduate transfer Al Durham said. “They didn’t respect us or respect our team, so it created a fire for us to prove that we’re supposed to be where we are today.”
Despite losing in the Big East tournament semifinals, Providence enters the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed. The Friars play No. 13 South Dakota State Thursday at 12:40 p.m. in Buffalo.
What made this season different? Here’s what the players had to say.
Nucleus largely stayed intact
Back in ninth grade, when Roxbury’s A.J. Reeves first met Cooley, he was struck by the coach’s sincerity and earnestness right away. Following a standout career at Brimmer and May, Reeves had lofty goals when he arrived at Providence as the No. 6 shooting guard in his class.
While the 6-foot-6-inch Reeves flashed his potential, the Friars were stuck in the middle of the pack in his first season, finishing 18-16 overall and 7-11 in the Big East in 2018-19. A slight improvement to 19-12, 12-6 came before COVID-19 took away the 2020 NCAA Tournament, and last year, the team took a step back at 13-13, 9-10.
Reeves was well aware of how the transfer portal can change fortunes, but he chose to stay. He believed in the connections he had built.
He wasn’t the only player to make that decision.
Nate Watson and Noah Horchler elected to stay another year after graduating, and senior Ed Croswell and redshirt junior Jared Bynum also came back.
And it all worked out: Watson led PC in scoring, averaging 13.8 points per game. Bynum contributed 12.7 and Reeves 10.
“I felt like we had unfinished business here,” Reeves said. “I didn’t want to leave on a sour taste. I felt like we could do something special.”
New faces who fit their style
To complement that deep core, Providence added two key grad transfers — Durham from Indiana and Justin Minaya from South Carolina.
Cooley wanted players who were older, battle-tested, and tough, and Durham and Minaya fit those criteria perfectly. Assistant coach Ivan Thomas had recruited Durham out of high school, and the Friars had a relationship with the staff at South Carolina.
Durham is Providence’s second-leading scorer, contributing 13.4 points per game while leading the team in minutes. He called it a “no-brainer” to come to Providence and said it “felt like home” right away.
Minaya is another key part of the rotation, contributing nearly six rebounds per game while eating up minutes. The fit made complete sense.
“It felt natural,” Reeves said. “It didn’t feel forced. It didn’t feel like anybody had an ego. Everybody just wanted to go out as a winner. They came in, and it was just instant stars and sparks.
“We knew we had something. You could see early on that we jelled together.”
The art of winning close games
Providence finished 10-1 in nonconference play, and six of the 10 wins came by 11 points or fewer. The Friars established themselves early on as a team that thrives under pressure.
Cooley compiled a chart with 74 late-game scenarios: 15 seconds left, down 3, with one free throw remaining; 40 seconds left, up 3, sideline out; you name it. The team’s experience meant the learning curve wasn’t as steep, and they could handle the prep work.
Quickly, those late-game situations came into play, and it was a trend that couldn’t be ignored.
Providence opened conference play with a 4-point win over Connecticut, and followed it up with a 5-point win over Seton Hall.
Of the 14 conference wins, 11 came by 10 points or fewer. There was the 3-point OT win over DePaul. A 1-point victory over Butler. And a triple-overtime thriller against Xavier, a 7-point victory.
And then came the chance to clinch their first Big East regular-season title, against Creighton on Senior Night.
The Friars played one of their best games of the season en route to a 72-51 win. They had to wait a few extra minutes when a beer spilled on the court, but they had waited decades, so they didn’t mind the brief holdup.
The celebration matched the mood, as fans stormed the court, players hugged one another, and Cooley was bathed in Gatorade.
“It’s something that we’ll remember here for years,” Durham said.