Luck is a four-letter word in college basketball. It is employed as a pejorative, a dismissal of teams that succeed against expectation, against the variety of mathematical formulas designed to indicate which have achieved the degree of power necessary to excel. It is not enough to merely to win in today’s game. If a team does not win big, perhaps really big, it is inevitably dismissed as lucky.
“I’ve been lucky my whole life,” Ed Cooley said.
He has been lucky enough in the past five months to win 86 percent of the games he has coached for the Providence Friars, to receive top-10 rankings in the Associated Press poll, to win a Big East championship that, quite fortunately, was clinched at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center so the team’s wonderfully maniacal student fans could join the celebration on the floor with the players who did the hardest work. The Friars finished the regular season with a 24-4 record despite an average margin of victory of 5.9 points per game.
It is not luck, though, to produce such results at the highest level of Division I with a team that includes only two top-100 recruits – one of whom literally was No. 100 – and four who were unranked. Understand, 247Sports rates 400 college basketball prospects before deciding that’s probably enough. And half of Providence’s team couldn’t make that cut. But they were on that floor in late February, swarmed by their classmates and reveling in the first Big East regular season championship ever for the Friars, who literally were the first team into league when it was formed in 1979.
Does that sound to you like the work of the Sporting News college basketball Coach of the Year? Yeah, us, too. This makes it official, though. Ed Cooley has earned that award for the 2021-22 season, joining such past winners as Mark Few, John Calipari, Bill Self and Al Skinner, Cooley’s first boss in Division I coaching.
“There are a lot of teams that would like to be called ‘lucky’ while winning,” Cooley told The Sporting News. “There are many teams that say, ‘Damn, we didn’t get lucky today.’ Just think about that for a second. When people use the term luck, they look at it as a negative. I look at that as an incredible positive.
“Ask the guy who won $300 million, that won the lottery four or five weeks ago, how lucky he is. Do you think he’s worried about what people are thinking? Call me lucky all you want, but one thing you’re going to call me is a rich, lucky lottery winner.”
|Margin of victory||1-5 or OT||6-10||11-19||20+|
A lot of Providence’s current success was launched after last season, one of the few disappointing years since Cooley got the job of coaching in his hometown, in the building where he used to try sneaking in the backdoor when he was a teen.
The 2020-21 Friars finished 13-13 and lost to No. 11 seed DePaul – that’s last place, people – in the first round of the Big East Tournament.
“We just weren’t in a good place,” Cooley said. “There were about 8 seconds left, losing to DePaul in the Big East opening round, and my team just wasn’t connected the way we’re supposed to be. And I was so in my head, I said: I need to change. I need to make some changes. The change has got to start with the mirror. I’ve got to be way more accountable with our players, with respect to not letting them get away with not touching the line, or asking them to do something without questioning it.
“We had to bring in some people who could play at Providence – and who could play for me. What type of dudes do I do well with? Kids that appreciate. Kids that are not going to complain, kids that have a chip, kids that are tough. Are you willing to sacrifice for the whole?”
The best player on last season’s team, junior guard David Duke, left for the NBA. That inevitability portended doom for this year’s Friars, but his replacements have excelled without starring. Guard Al Durham transferred in from Indiana, where he played well enough but never on tremendously successful teams. He developed into one of the best clutch players in the nation. Wing Justin Minaya transferred from South Carolina and became one of the best defenders in the Big East. Big man Nate Watson, power forward Noah Horchler, shooter A.J. Reeves and backup big Ed Croswell all elevated their performances from a year ago. Point guard Jared Bynum more than doubled his scoring average, to 12.9 points per game.
Cooley was able to gather the entire Providence roster on campus for two months last summer. He could sense there was something different about this team, and a close win over Fairfield in the opener seemed to confirm it, even though the local reaction to a narrow escape of a mid-major opponent was more of concern.
“I’m like: Guys, this team knows how to win,” Cooley said. “We were not there yet. We were building chemistry. What we couldn’t do that I’ve done in the past was allow people to play early, where we’re watching them grow while they’re making mistakes. We couldn’t do that. We had to know who we were early, and I think the staff found that out early.”
The Friars are 11-2 in games decided by two possessions or fewer, or in overtime. They beat DePaul in OT, came back from 19 down in the second half to beat Butler in overtime and needed three extra periods to finish off Xavier. And those were just the closest games.
“I love close games, I really do,” Cooley said. “I embrace a close game.”
Cooley remembers seeing his first Providence game in the mid-1980s, the Friars against Pitt. He knew soon what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to play for PC. “Little did I know, I wasn’t very good,” he said. “I thought I was Pat Ewing, for crying out loud.” He was Rhode Island’s player of the year twice, good enough for Stonehill College in Massachusetts, which played at the Division II level. He was a three-year team captain, and that is easy to understand for anyone who’s met him and sensed his charisma.
Cooley got his break into college coaching under Skinner at Rhode Island, then followed him to Boston College, where Tim O’Shea, Bill Coen and Skinner helped build a successful Big East program by digging up such overlooked and underrated players as Craig Smith, Jared Dudley and Troy Bell. Working on that staff taught Cooley the rule of talent acquisition that has guided his work throughout his head coaching career at Fairfield and Providence: It was more important to evaluate than to recruit.
It wasn’t enough just to go sign the highest-rated players. It wasn’t enough to just to determine if a player was good enough for the Big East.
“It’s not just who can play for Providence,” he said. “It’s can they play for Ed?”
The unique chemistry he created with this team — picked to finish seventh in the Big East but closer to seventh in the nation at the end of the regular season — is why he became The Sporting News Coach of the Year selection.
“I’ve been blessed to be a head coach for 16 years. I can’t believe I’ve lasted this long,” Cooley said. “You get these jobs, and you hope you can make it. I always treat people well. A lot of people think they become Naismith overnight; I’m a timeout away from getting fired, you know what I’m saying?
“My day starts with thank you and ends with thank you because gratitude and appreciation – there’s nothing like having it. That’s ingrained in you.”