PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Ed Cooley wasn’t kidding when he said Wednesday night’s 70-52 win over Georgetown was a character win. The Providence head coach knows it in more ways than one.
Simply put, Providence has had to hang in there and keep fighting with the deck seemingly stacked against them. This team is battle-hardened on and off the court, and while it’s been tough at times, this team is showing its toughness and benefiting from it more than ever. There has been adversity left and right for this team.
Remember, this team is already down three bodies. Kris Dunn will end up playing just four games due to a shoulder injury that ended his season early. Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock have been suspended for the year, with the former opting to transfer. Because of Dunn’s injury, Bryce Cotton plays out of position, and with Austin and Bullock out, a breather for him is pretty much not an option. The Friars basically play six, maybe seven players – eight tops. Only junior big man Carson Desrosiers played more than a minute off the bench Wednesday night.
This team was also blown out in their last game, losing by 30 at Villanova. Yes, it was on the road, and Villanova is good, but losing by 30 is never good. It was this team’s third straight loss.
With all of that, one might wonder if the combination of personnel hits and tough losses might be what knocks them off. One might wonder if they would bounce back again, or if the blowout loss was a sign of things being ready to come crashing down. One might wonder if things are about to get worse.
And then they almost did get worse for Cooley and his family, but not quite in this way. A small fire damaged his home Tuesday night, but thankfully no one was hurt. The family won’t be able to go home for a few days, but this was a perspective check for him and his players, who already had a lot thrown at them.
“All the turbulence that we’ve had around our program over the last couple of months, and to get a call from your wife that something at home is not right, it really puts things in perspective,” said Cooley.
This team knows no other way, though. They were stung by injuries and eligibility issues often last year and had a skeleton crew more than they would care to admit, which led Cooley to joke about all the suits on the bench. They battled through being short-handed all year and found a way to make a run in the NIT after being a borderline NCAA Tournament team. It’s not so much that they’re “used to” dealing with so much adversity as much as they’re experienced with it, and while no one wants that kind of experience it does have some value because we all experience it in life.
“Losing is always tough,” said senior Kadeem Batts, who had his best game in a few weeks with 21 points on 6-9 shooting. “It’s just a matter of us coming together and sticking to what we know and locking in on defense.”
While the Friars certainly defended, forcing 15 Georgetown turnovers and holding the Hoyas below 40 percent shooting (Georgetown came in shooting 49.5 percent on the season), what they know is simply to keep fighting. There hasn’t been a doubt that this team will keep fighting.
This is a reflection of Cooley and the staff, because they’re a group that has been fighting. They have worked tirelessly to rebuild this program, and there are a lot of positives to this point. Certainly, the NCAA Tournament hasn’t been a result yet, and the odds have gotten a lot longer for this year in the past month. Cooley talked about the frustration of not being able to coach everyone the staff recruited. But perspective has to come in again, at a time when fans can appreciate the character of who wears the uniform with how they keep battling.
“We all want to win,” said Cooley. “I feel the frustration from our fans, our season ticket holders and our donors, and you know what? I embrace that frustration, because that means we care, that means they care, and at the end of the day, we are going to be okay. It’s not easy when you’re building a program. It’s not easy at all. What our expectations were at the beginning, sometimes your goals have to change, but as long as we continue to do the right thing daily, we do the right thing institutionally, our program will flourish. We’ll have some bumps, there will be some turbulence, the plane always lands.”
After Austin left recently, some started to wonder if this might be a turning point for Cooley and his staff. Would he feel like he can’t win? Would he start to feel like this isn’t a good place? It’s hard to imagine. This is the guy who did anything he could as a kid to watch Providence games. This is the guy who said he was “sprinting home” when he took the job. When he was an assistant at Boston College, he lived in Providence. This is home. When the job opened and he got it, no one expected anyone else to get the job.
Could he really look for an exit sooner rather than later? Could the hometown hero really want to leave over this? Frankly, it seems like an outlandish idea, but the coach addressed it.
“I’m proud to be at Providence College,” Cooley said. “I never see me going anywhere. I have the absolute 100 percent support of our administration, and today it all came together for us.”
Providence doesn’t have much margin for error with their personnel, and the close calls have borne that out. They may have a lot of games like the loss at UMass, where they hung in but were a bit short, and the loss had to sting because it was there for the taking. They need to get a lot out of their starters and first man off the bench.
But this coach and this team are not running away from what lies ahead. They aren’t running away from the challenge they have. They’re too competitive to do that. And continuing to fight is what they know.