PROVIDENCE — Beyond the borders of Rhode Island, the Providence College men’s basketball team is an underdog team on a “lucky” streak. They were picked to finish seventh in the Big East and pundits often discussed what — and who — they lacked.
But the Friars beat the odds during their first two games in Buffalo, and are preparing to face regional No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks and their Hall of Fame coach Bill Self in Chicago in the Sweet 16 on Friday night. Rallying behind them will be the entire state of Rhode Island.
The scrappy team has given people something to focus on outside of the COVID-19 pandemic and the horrors of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fans at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center danced and cheered to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” the unofficial anthem at every home game. The lyrics offer a message about being with those who understand you. It’s how the students feel about PC, a school that gave out sweatshirts to all returning students after the pandemic shutdown that read, “You are never alone in Friartown.”
When the Friars trounced Creighton 72-51 to secure its first-ever Big East regular season title on Feb. 28, Rhode Islanders were ready to see them go all the way.
“Why not the Friars?” coach Ed Cooley asked reporters Wednesday as the team prepared to leave for Chicago.
Cooley knows what its like to be the underdog. He was a kid from South Providence in the 1980s who had to sneak into the Civic Center to catch a game because he couldn’t afford a ticket. Now, on campus and off, he’s a celebrity, high-fiving students and taking selfies.
“Just the other day, I saw him walking around campus and I gave him a fist bump,” said Liam Wilson, a PC freshman. “He embraces this culture and this city. And Providence just wraps their arms around him right back. He’s an inspiration to all of us.”
During a December matchup against Seton Hall in Providence, Cooley wanted his Friars to be more aggressive. TV cameras were rolling when Cooley leaned into the huddle and pounded his fist straight into his palm with each word he spoke.
“This is a street fight,” he shouted over the crowd. “Be the tougher team. If we’re the tougher team, we’re winning. Be them dudes.”
The Friars clinched their seventh straight win that night — and “them dudes” became their tagline.
“There’s a common love we all have for our school and for this team,” said Bridget Dockett, a PC student. “This campus feels like one big family.”
Matt Hewmendes, a PC freshman from Rhode Island, said he’s never seen the entire state rally around anything the way people have united behind this basketball team.
“My friends go to URI. There’s usually a rivalry. But lately, they’re texting me, ‘Go Friars,’” said Hewmendes. “There’s point of pride. Not just among the students at PC but everyone from this state.”
“If there’s one thing that this is all centered around, it’s Ed freaking Cooley,” said Katherine Hypolite-MacMannis, who works at Johnson & Wales and graduated from PC in 2009. “That man is a community builder. He has the chops to be a preacher. When he talks, you lean in.”
She said she’s recently started wearing her PC class ring again.
“He makes me proud to be an alum. And makes me proud to live in this state,” she said.
The fact that people outside of Rhode Island constantly underestimate the Providence College men’s basketball team only makes Friars fans love their team more.
“I feel like they can take on any team. We’re 100 percent behind them,” said Brian Helmstetter of Providence, who joined hundreds of people outside the Ruane Friar Development Center on Wednesday to send the team off to Chicago. He kept chanting to the crowd, “Are you Friar-ed up?!”
The naysayers have no pull in Rhode Island.
“I have friends of mine that have heard me say ‘This is the year that PC really becomes a basketball school,’ for the last 20 years,” said Andy MacMannis, who graduated from the college in 2008, a year before his wife, Katherine. “But after years of rallying around the team and sticking by them, it’s really paying off. America is falling in love with PC. But we’ve always had Friar pride.”
When the team went up against Richmond in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 19, bars and restaurants downtown filled up with fans wearing silver and black — the team’s colors. Mike Greig, the owner of Muldowney’s Pub on Empire Street, says the energy there during Providence College games is “not like anything else you’ve ever seen.” Murphy’s, an Irish pub on Fountain Street, reached capacity and had to turn people away before the game even started.
At Blake’s Tavern, where PC jerseys are displayed like trophies, fans sit and stand wherever there’s space, ordering another round, crossing their fingers, and clapping every time the Friars make a shot.
“The fans have always been loyal — win or lose. You can definitely feel the love even more than before... If that’s possible,” said Sana Asstafan, who owns Blake’s. “It really give you chills.”
Cooley is known to amp up every rowdy student section, waving his arms whenever he isn’t shouting plays, urging fans to get even louder. But every time he does so, he also rallies regular Rhode Islanders sitting on their living room couches or local barstools. And the players and coaches say they feel the love.
“The fans have been awesome this whole year from the Dunk to around campus. Everyone saying ‘What’s up?’ I love it,” said senior guard A.J. Reeves. “Hopefully, we can put on a show for them.”
“We’re not finished,” he said. “We want to keep winning as much as we can.”
LaDontae Henton played for PC from 2011 to 2015. Last summer, he returned as an assistant coach. Before boarding the bus on Wednesday, he told the Globe that heading to the Sweet 16 meant everything, especially knowing that a state of fans were behind them.
“The camaraderie of this team goes beyond PC’s campus and the Dunk. It goes anywhere we go. We’re ready to give it our all,” he said. “And it’s no surprise that this city, this state has our back.”
No matter what happens on Friday night against Kansas, many fans and alumni are just excited that the Friars have made it this far.
This team “has brought everyone together in the Friar community and in Rhode Island at a time when we all needed something to rally behind,” said Hypolite-MacMannis. “Everyone in this state will stop whatever they are doing and put that game on. Everyone in Rhode Island is going to be a Friar on Friday.”
Carlos Muñoz of the Globe staff contributed to this report.