NEW YORK -- The last time Providence went this deep in the Big East Tournament was 20 years ago, when Ed Cooley was a senior at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., watching his hometown Friars on television. They made a surprise run to the championship as a No. 4 seed under coach Rick Barnes, knocking off regular-season champ UConn -- the Donyell Marshall-and-Ray Allen-led version of the Huskies -- and then Georgetown in the title game. Cooley remembers the overpowering physicality of the Friars' power forwards, Dickey Simpkins and Michael Smith. Point guard Abdul Abdullah was Cooley's old teammate at Providence's Central High, and he felt a deep connection with the school, even though he played his college ball elsewhere in Division II.
"I was born and raised in Providence," he said Friday night, after leading the Friars to the 2014 Big East final with an 80-74 win over Seton Hall, "and I was born to coach Providence basketball."
Over the past decade, Providence developed a reputation for flopping at Madison Square Garden in March. From 2004-2013, the Friars had nine first-round exits from the Big East tournament. The only year that didn't happen was 2006 -- because they didn't even qualify for the conference tournament. This season they arrived in New York squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, at 20-11 overall and 10-8 in the league, needing to bolster a resume whose best wins were at home over Creighton and Xavier.
Providence needed to go on a tournament run despite having the shortest rotation in Division I. December injuries (to point guard Kris Dunn) and suspensions (Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock were lost for the season) led to the Friars giving just 14.6 percent of their minutes to reserves this season, and senior combo guard Bryce Cotton averaging 39.9 minutes per game, tops in the nation. The amount of playing time he's logged, which includes 10 overtime periods in '13-14, led Cooley to joke to reporters that Cotton has averaged "120 minutes per game."
The Friars knocked off St. John's in the quarterfinals on Thursday and then Seton Hall in Friday's semis, with Cotton (18 points, 10 assists) and forward LaDontae Henton (26 points, 14 rebounds) both playing all 40 minutes. Cotton believed in the preseason that Providence had a chance to be special, but said he "couldn't quite figure out what it was that was special." What they've found is an identity as ironmen -- and they've solved whatever cursed Providence for years at the Garden. When they face Big East newcomer Creighton in Saturday night's final, either champ will make for a good story, but league sentimentalists will be siding with the Friars.
While Cooley was reminiscing about the 1994 Big East run on Friday, new commissioner Val Ackerman stopped him in a back hallway of the Garden and said, "You're unbelievable. I am so happy for you guys."
A Providence upset of Creighton in the final would make the Big East happy by nearly guaranteeing the league four bids in the NCAA tournament, along with the Bluejays, Villanova and very-likely-at-large Xavier. There are those around the Friars program who believe they've already done enough to earn an invite -- Father Brian Shanley, the school's president, was overheard saying, "We're in now" after emerging from the locker room on Friday -- but bracketologists don't consider it a lock. The only way for the ironmen to be certain is to grind out one more victory and end a two-decade drought.