Providence had the shortest bench and the most work to do to in this weekend’s Big East tournament. If the team planned to hop off of the NCAA tournament bubble and squarely land in the field of 68, they had to make a decent run. It appears that the 22-11 Friars have done just that. With victories over St. Johns in the quarterfinals and pesky Seton Hall in the semis, coach Ed Cooley’s program is poised for a Big East championship. Was it divine intervention that helped Providence pull off this Cinderella run? There is no telling, but the fact remains that top-seeded No. 3 Villanova (28-4) fell to Seton Hall in the quarterfinals, sparing the Friars from having to face the club that had beaten them twice, including a 30-point drubbing at Villanova.
Advancing to the tournament championship, along with previous victories over 26-6 Creighton and 21-10 Xavier, should be enough to get the Fryers into the Big Dance. The only way to know for sure, though, is to win the Big East tournament outright.
With suspensions to Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock and an injury to Kris Dunn, Providence had to rely on their starters more than any other Big East school this season. Since Providence has had to endure 10 overtime games, Coach Cooley quipped that his leading scorer, Cotton, was averaging 120 minutes per game. Providence has had to rely on its starters even more in the tournament, in essence using a six-man rotation and playing games on what will be three successive nights.
“You only need five [players],” Cooley said. “You can’t be tired playing for a championship.”
The Fryars’ “iron men” senior guard Bryce Cotton, junior forward LaDontae Henton and sophomore guard Josh Fortune are all already in the top 12 in the Big East in terms of minutes played. Cotton has averaged a whopping 39.9 minutes per game and Henton is not far behind him with just over 37 minutes. Cotton and Henton both played all 40 minutes versus both St. Johns and Seton Hall this week in the tourney.
With powerhouse Creighton looming in the championship, it does not appear that they will be getting any rest any time soon. Perhaps Providence will need divine intervention to keep this Cinderella run going, but all along this was part of the plan for the Fryers.
‘‘This was one of our goals coming into the season,” Cooley said. “Madison Square Garden, it’s a big place to play at, a great place to play…’’
The last time MSG was this great to the Fryers was in 1994. It has been 20 years since Providence has been in the Big East championship, last making the run at the Garden when Cooley was a senior at Division II Stonehill College. Since then the bright lights of New York have not been kind to the Fryars, who are original member of the conference. In fact, since 2004 Providence has not even advanced past the first round of the Big East tournament. That is, until now. Divine intervention aside, the Cinderella run that Providence is making is a testament to the players. Cotton says that when the team was practicing this summer he could tell that they were special. The No. 2 scorer in the conference (21.3 points per game) behind Doug McDermott has a chance to show the nation how special they are when they face off against the nation’s leading scorer and his No. 14 Creighton Blue Jays.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika