For the first time in a quarter-century, the Providence Friars are headed to the Sweet Sixteen.
Wow. What a sentence. It’s been a near 15-hours since that game ended last night, and I still find myself speechless – and I’m sure Friar fans everywhere are feeling the same way. After a season where a majority of this team’s success has been attributed to “luck,” to watch this team advance to the Sweet 16, by the means of a rout, is truly something special. I’m definitely going to get into the larger-scale implications of this one, but first, let’s talk about the game.
The Friars headed into this game 1-0 in the big dance after topping the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, 66-57, in the Round of 64 on Saint Patrick’s Day. As expected, the narrative heading into that game was one to the tune of “Providence is going to get upset by a 13-seed.” Of course, this only served as fuel for Ed Cooley’s tenured squad, who successfully used their defensive prowess to hold the Jackrabbits to 57-points, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-points below the team’s season average. Little did the Friar Faithful know, however, that this defensive performance would replicate in the team’s next game against the Richmond Spiders.
The Spiders entered this matchup after upsetting the 5-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes, the B1G Tournament Champions, in the Round of 64. The Spiders earned their spot in the big dance by going on a nice little win streak that included the A10 Tournament Championship. As were the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State, the Spiders served as another “upset-watch” matchup for the Friars. Instead, the Friars held Richmond to 51-points – the lowest point total of the season for the Spiders.
Despite all of the narratives going into this one, Ed Cooley’s Friars came ready to play on both ends of the floor, with the team’s motivation being to prove everyone wrong. The result? A 79-51 victory was perhaps the most well-rounded offense/defense performance by the Friars all season.
Noah Horchler led the way for the Friars, notching his NINTH double-double of the season, scoring 16-points, and grabbing 14-rebounds. The sixth-year graduate transfer was red-hot last night, scoring all over the floor, especially from beyond the arc. As a team, the Friars shot 12-for-22 from beyond the arc (good for 54%), but were led by Horchler’s 4 made threes.
Horchler was joined in double figures by Al Durham (13-points, 3 made threes), AJ Reeves (12-points, 5-assists), Nate Watson (10-points, 4-rebounds), and Jared Bynum (10-points, 6-assists). The Friars also received contributions from Justin Minaya (9-points, 3-rebounds, 2 threes made), and Ed Croswell defensively.
As I mentioned earlier, last night’s game was the most complete game that the team has produced all season, offensively and defensively. As a team, the Friars shot 51.9% from the floor, while going 54.5% from beyond the arc. Defensively, the Friars held the Spiders to 39.6% from the floor, while going a humble 4.5% from beyond the arc. For the second time in three days, the Friars’ defense was absolutely stifling, and the result this time around was a rout.
As a tenured Friar fan, I can’t even begin to express the emotions I feel after this one. I’ve watched this team go through some serious highs, with some really great players like Kris Dunn, Bryce Cotton, Kyron Cartwright, and David Duke. I’ve watched this team go through some heartbreaking lows, including a 13-13 finish last season, which ended with a Wednesday night Big East tournament loss to the residential basement-dwelling, DePaul Blue Demons.
So, when I tell you that this one strikes a chord that’s never been strung before, I mean it - and I think I speak for all of the Friar Faithful in saying this. The last time this team made the Sweet 16 was in 1997. I wasn’t even born yet. So as a 23-year-old Friar fan (I’ll be 24 in roughly 2 weeks), to say that this is the first time in my lifetime that the Friars have made the Sweet 16 is not an exaggeration. And I must say, the timing of this Sweet 16 Berth is impeccable.
Let’s go back to the last time the Friars were in the big dance. It was the 2017-2018 season and Kyron Cartwright had led the 5th-seeded Friars to the Big East Tournament Championship game, where they suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to the eventual National Champions, Villanova Wildcats. The next weekend, the 10th-seeded Friars found themselves matched up against the 7th-seeded Aggies of Texas A&M. The result of this one was a 4-point loss that ended the Friars’ season.
The next season, 2018-2019, the young and rebuilding Friars would find themselves falling short of the NCAA Tournament and earning a spot in the NIT. Yes, the NIT is a post-season tournament. No, it is not a respected post-season tournament – and I’ll leave it at that.
In 2019-2020, after getting off to an atrocious start, the senior-leaden Friars rattled off 6-straight wins to end Big East conference play with a school-best 12 wins, 6 losses, including 5 wins over ranked opponents. That team never got to experience a post-season, as the raging pandemic pulled the rug out from under them, and robbed everyone of a Big East Tournament, and an NCAA Tournament, where Providence was a projected 7-seed.
And last year, 2020-2021, as I’ve previously mentioned, ended with the Friars going 13-13.
So, after two underwhelming seasons, and a season in which the post-season was quite literally robbed by the means of uncontrollable sources, it is so, so, so refreshing to watch this team advance to the Sweet 16, and to do so comfortably.
Never had I thought that this team – the team picked seventh in the Big East preseason polls, the team who’s had its legitimacy attributed to luck for a majority of the season, a team who did not have a first-team All-Big East selection this year – would make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in the way in which it did.
So, my message to the Friar Faithful: enjoy this moment. It has been a very LONG time coming. We can look ahead to our matchup with Kansas later this week. But for right now, enjoy this moment – as a fan base, and a basketball program, we’ve certainly earned it.