CHICAGO — The Providence Friars are thriving in the role of the underdogs. Which is fitting, given their opponents in the Sweet 16, the Kansas Jayhawks, are favored by 7.5 points for Friday’s game.
It’s something that coach Ed Cooley has always relished, and it’s something his players have come to appreciate this season.
“I’ve been doubted my whole life, so doubt is just something that I live with and embrace,” Cooley said, adding: “I appreciate doubt. I appreciate people who don’t believe. I believe every day I wake up there’s an opportunity to be special. Every day I wake up I try and inspire the group that nobody is better than you for 40 minutes.”
Speaking Thursday ahead of Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup, several Friars players also commented on their underdog status and how that’s become a part of them. While Las Vegas may not agree with their self-assessment, since Providence has only been a betting underdog nine times in 32 games, the Friars are using that perception as motivation for this weekend.
“We see it as fuel,” senior guard Al Durham said. “We’ve always been the underdog in every game play. We’ve been looked down upon. We use it as fuel to the fire that keeps us going and keeps us working hard and keeps us dedicated and locked in. So we use it as fire if anything else.”
Advanced metrics, however, do agree with the Friars in this case. Their alleged luck has been fodder throughout season, both in social and traditional media, and KenPom has Providence ranked first in its “Luck rating” metric this season. The next “luckiest” team in the Sweet 16 is North Carolina, which ranks 33rd.
Kansas, by comparison, is 105th in the nation in Luck rating and ranks ninth out of the remaining 16 teams. For KU coach Bill Self, though, there’s nothing lucky about what Providence has accomplished this season.
“Luck doesn’t win close games, toughness and skill and execution does,” Self said. “So they’ve got a lot to be proud of. And I know they’re going into this game believing that if they play well, they can handle us. And we know that we’re going to have to play well to do that to them.”
Underdogs or not, lucky or not, this season has been a rousing success for the Friars, including their first-ever Big East regular season championship. Building on that regular-season success, Providence has won its two NCAA tournament games so far by nine points over South Dakota State and by 28 over Richmond.
The Jayhawks, though, are a different kind of foe. Big 12 champions, No. 1 seed in the Midwest region and legitimate national title contenders with multiple NBA players on the roster. For Cooley, there’s about excitement and nervousness about playing that kind of team on this kind of stage, especially since he doesn’t believe major powers want to come see them in the regular season.
“The reason we don’t play the blue bloods is because they don’t want to come to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Let’s call it exactly what it is. We’d love that opportunity and embrace that opportunity,” Cooley said. “It’s great. It’s great for our school. And again, they are the blue blood. I know they’re a win away from the all-time wins in the history of our game. And they’ve earned that.”
Providence is one of the country’s better shooting teams offensively, while will put a steadily improving KU defense to the test. The Friars, though, are also aware of the tall task they face in matching up with the Jayhawks’ high-powered offense.
“Well, everything concerns me,” Cooley said. “[Ochai] Agbaji jumps out. [Christian] Braun jumps out. [David] McCormack jumps out. Bill Self jumps out. Superman jumps out. There’s a lot for us to worry about. And they’re very, very talented. They’re very athletic. We kind of mirror one another … you have McCormack, you have Watson. They stretch the floor. Very, very good driving the ball.”
“Luck” felt like a different kind of four-letter word on Thursday at the United Center. Providence embraced that narrative to fuel its own fire. Kansas outright rejected it. But if the Friars want to advance to their first Elite 8 since 1997, it wouldn’t hurt to have some against one of the country’s best teams.
Click below to hear what Ed Cooley and the Friars had to say about facing the Kansas Jayhawks in the Sweet 16.