March Madness 2022: Providence has eyes on Sweet 16

BUFFALO – The players knew it. Sure they did. They may be brothers but they are not monks. You hear the radio. You see the TV. They’re glued to social media. So yes, the Providence basketball team knew they were receiving a most ignominious honor by entering this NCAA tournament.

“We would be the first team to get upset,” said AJ Reeves, laughing.

And it was even worse: Not only would they be the first excitement, they would be the easiest to pick. They were a #4 seed. The state of South Dakota was #13. The state of South Dakota had the cooler nickname (Jackrabbits!) and the more comfortable playstyle (nearly 86 points per game, #2 overall in Division I!) . They had already won 30 games.

They were so popular that it was hard to imagine the jackrabbits as outsiders. Early on, they were filling the KeyBank Cener with ally-oops and 3s and old-school run-and-gun, and the entire city of Buffalo was primed to take on them.

Just one funny thing happened.

providence wouldn’t play. The brothers took the lead again midway through the first half. They built it in the second. They never really let the Jackrabbits get going, not even letting them have late possession with a chance to tie the game. The final was 66-57. The roughly 2,000 Providence fans behind the brothers’ bench loved every second of it. It felt like they were the only ones.

“Good games, bad games,” Justin Minaya said. “We’ve seen them all.”

And mostly they won them all, 26 wins in 31 starts. And the brothers will experience exactly the same dynamic Saturday, when They’re taking on Richmond with a shot at the Sweet 16. Richmond isn’t just a natural adopter for the Locals because they’re another low seed (12) after knocking off fifth-place Iowa on Friday. But they play at the Atlantic 10, which is one of the hometown conferences in Buffalo.

So these 2,000 or so Friars fans can scream to their hearts’ content. They are drowned out by 15,000 others.

“We have to embrace the moment,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said.

Ed Cooley
Ed Cooley
Getty Images

And really, what a moment. It’s hard to call any member of the Great East a feisty outsider, but if there is one, it has to be Providence. They’ve been a charter member of the Big East since 1980, but just this year won their first straight regular-season title.

And despite a rich basketball history, you regularly ooze real wealth—in 1973 under Dave Gavitt, Ernie DiGregorio, and Marvin Barnes; 1987 under Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan, 1997 under Pete Gillen and God Shammgod – have always come under the umbrella of the underdogs. It’s just not providential to be the prey.

And yet here they are.

Betting on March Madness 2022?

“I can tell you that,” Cooley said, laughing. “By Sunday morning either Providence or Richmond will be advancing to the Sweet 16, put it down, someone is advancing, the more disciplined and happier team. And yes, you need a bit of luck to get ahead.”

You could almost tell a wink when Cooley said that. It annoys the people of Providence to hear how “lucky” they’ve been all year. They are 18-2 in games decided by 10 points or less this year (losing only twice to Villanova). COVID cancellations mean they won their league title, helped by cancellations against Seton Hall, Connecticut and Creighton, all tournament teams.

Jared Bynum had 12 points for Providence in Friday's win against South Dakota State.
Jared Bynum had 12 points for Providence in Friday’s win against South Dakota State.
USA TODAY sports

Of course, this could also be interpreted differently:

They just know how to win as well as any team in the country. That caused a massive buzzkill in Buffalo on Friday afternoon. They wouldn’t mind making the 2-for-2 as they prepare for a game at neutral ground disguised as a home game in Richmond on Saturday night.

“The Sweet 16 is a viable option for us now,” Reeves said, and around Providence it’s a big deal. They’ve only been there twice since 1974. Cooley, as respected a coach as the sport as a whole, has never been. Most years, that would be something many fans could get behind.

And maybe next week – if they look at Kansas – they can be again. But they have to get to the other side of the weekend first. Gotta figure out Richmond first. March Madness 2022: Providence has eyes on Sweet 16


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