As fans rushed the court to celebrate Providence’s first regular-season Big East Conference championship, the novelty of the moment was heightened by the decisiveness with which it was earned.
With a near addiction to crunch-time theatrics, Ed Cooley’s Friars had collectively built a reputation as college basketball’s newest cardiac kids. Entering its pivotal matchup with Creighton in late February, all but one of Providence’s 11 prior games had been decided by 10 points or fewer. A nail-biting affair seemed inevitable in a clash of two tournament-bound teams. Instead, the Friars amassed a 20-point advantage with six minutes remaining and earned their largest conference victory of the season. As surprising as it was to see a team picked to finish seventh in the preseason coaches’ poll wind up with a conference title, it was equally surprising to see the 2022 Providence Friars play a game that didn’t feel like a high-wire act.
“Providence is fascinating because they just keep winning,” said Mark Titus, co-host of the Titus & Tate podcast. “Every single game comes down to the wire, it feels like.”
Crunch-time dominance has led to a historic 24-win campaign, tied for the program’s most in a single season since 1986-87. Only five teams1 have a higher win percentage than the Friars. But as Providence takes the floor today in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, the conference champion and top seed in the bracket will have only the third-best odds to cut down the nets.
Rare is the top-10, major-conference champion with an .857 win percentage that isn’t firmly planted in national championship discourse. But the Friars, which have odds longer than +6500 at many sportsbooks, are instead relegated to good-but-not-great status because much of the data suggests the team isn’t a contender. According to Bart Torvik’s website, which provides 10 past teams that most closely resemble each Division I team in a given season, Providence compares to just two teams that advanced past the round of 32.
There’s arguably no team with greater variance between its national ranking and the data that underpins its record than Providence. The Friars sit eleventh in the latest AP poll and project as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they rank outside the top 30 in team-strength metrics like KenPom’s adjusted efficiency, Bart Torvik’s BARTHAG and ESPN’s BPI. Providence trails at least two conference peers2 in each of those metrics.
The reason, it seems, is that Providence isn’t elite at much. It ranks outside the top 25 in both offensive or defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and appears outside the top 100 in effective field-goal percentage, turnover rate and rebounding rate.
But the Friars do lead the nation in luck. “We’re really lucky. We’re a really lucky team,” Cooley said in late January. “So you know what? We’ll continue to be lucky and try to win the next game.”
With data going back to the 2001-02 season, KenPom’s luck metric parses the deviation in win percentage between a team’s actual record and its expected one. At 0.172, the Friars not only lead all Division I schools in the metric this season, but they also rank first among all major-conference3 teams over the past two decades.
|Team||Season||Record||Luck 🍀||Adj. Eff. Margin|
|Texas A&M-Corpus Christi||2015-16||25-8||0.169||-0.66|
|Sam Houston State||2005-06||22-9||0.159||-2.01|
More than 60 percent of the team’s games this season have been decided by 10 or fewer points, and the Friars are 18-2 in those matchups, including wins over seven teams likely to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.4
These haven’t been conventional wins. There was the comeback victory over Texas Tech with 10 lead changes, the 19-point rally to stun Butler on the road and the game-winner with 2 seconds left against Xavier. There were near collapses against Seton Hall, UConn and Wisconsin. And there was the three-overtime thriller against the Musketeers that was nearly stopped when water leaked from the ceiling onto the court.5
At least some of the Friars’ late-game success is likely a result of the graybeards on the roster. Providence features five graduate transfers, two seniors and a redshirt junior. The five players with the most starts this season — Aljami Durham, A.J. Reeves, Justin Minaya, Noah Horchler and Nate Watson — have played a combined 622 games and 16,533 minutes of college basketball. As Andy Katz of Fox Sports noted, the average player on Cooley’s roster is 23 years old, which would make the Friars older than the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder (22.6) and only slightly younger than the Orlando Magic (23.4), Detroit Pistons (23.7) and Memphis Grizzlies (23.9).
This is the most veteran roster Cooley has had at Providence, with each player accumulating 2.74 years of experience, a mark that ranks seventh in the nation in KenPom’s metric. That experience certainly seems to keep the team poised in crunch time, when many of its games are decided. The team doesn’t exactly have a go-to scorer — it has four players averaging about double figures in scoring — but the roster is complementary and always seems ready to eke out a win.
COVID-19 complications canceled a three-game slate in mid-January against three likely tournament-qualifying teams in Creighton, Seton Hall and UConn, two of which were on the road. Those missing games allowed the Friars to claim the regular-season conference title despite losing both regular-season games to Villanova and having three fewer conference victories than the Wildcats the night they celebrated the championship. Providence also benefited from playing Wisconsin without Player of the Year candidate Johnny Davis and UConn without first-team all-conference player Adam Sanogo.
Fortune has favored the Friars all season. A founding member of the Big East Conference, Providence finally has a regular-season championship to its credit, and it accomplished the feat a season after it went .500 and lost All-American David Duke to the NBA. There may or may not be a Ouija board on the sideline to explain the team’s seeming allergy to ordinary outcomes, and every Friars game has somehow felt like the personification of Friar Dom’s sitting face.
Cooley closed his final press conference of the 2020-21 season with a declaration that changes would be coming, but few if any expected the success of 2021-22. It seems that his team hasn’t convinced many pundits to expect much of a run through March. But his team has bucked the expectation all season. Why stop now?
CORRECTION (Mar. 10, 2022, 10:50 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled Friar Dom, the name of Providence’s mascot.