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USC overcomes 17-point deficit to beat Providence in First Four 03.16.17 at 7:40 am ET
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Providence fell in the First Four Wednesday night. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

Providence fell in the First Four Wednesday night. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

To spin a phrase once written so capably by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

And that literally is what Providence is left with after losing a 17-point second half lead to Southern Cal in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio Wednesday night. The Friars, in as sharp a half as they played all season, led the Trojans by 15 points at halftime, and by 17 early in the second period.

They ended up losing, 75-71, to end the season at 20-13. USC (25-9) advances to Tulsa, Oklahoma to face 6th seeded SMU Friday afternoon.

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

Dickens’ chosen word of foolishness might not describe the second half of play for the Friars, but whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty. After torching the Trojans’ defense for 44 points and 55% field goal shooting in the first half, PC suddenly lost its aggressiveness on the offensive end as USC switched from a zone to man-to-man.

Additionally, the bigger Trojans pounded the Friars on the backboards, with a 21-9 rebound margin in the final 20 minutes. Included in that total were nine huge offensive rebounds, and the extra chances – not to mention the extra time off the clock – proved the Friars’ undoing.

“I think the second half we just didn’t play,” said Ed Cooley afterward, understating what was painfully obvious to the Friar Faithful. “I thought they played harder than us in the second half. I thought they were tougher. I think some of our early miscues (in the second half) gave them some energy and I just didn’t think we were tough.”

“We weren’t playing with the same passion we were in the first half, and it showed,” Jalen Lindsey added, after scoring 17 points for the Friars. “And they executed their game plan and we kind of faltered back.”

“We got into the paint a lot,” said USC guard Jordan McLaughlin, whose penetration into the Friar zone was a key to the comeback. “Once we got into the paint, everybody’s playing on two feet and making the right passes and right decisions. We were making the layups and knocking down jump shots.”

“We started switching one through four,” was coach Andy Enfield’s explanation for the turnaround. “Then we went big. And we played big for at least 10, 12 minutes of the game. We haven’t done that all season. For our players to adjust to that, that was impressive.”

Indeed, it was. Trailing 44-29 at the half, Enfield sent in his larger unit (three players 6-10 or taller) after PC extended the lead to 17 in the opening minute of the second period. The play of 6-11 freshman forward Nick
Rakocevic was a big part of the comeback, scoring seven of his nine points in the paint, and his physical play helped spark a huge 25-10 Trojan run over an 8:27 span.

The Friars never recovered, and never led again after giving the lead away. The comeback from 17 points down is the 7th greatest comeback in NCAA tournament history. That USC led the nation this season in making up double-digit deficits (with 12 wins after trailing by 10 points or more) wasn’t lost on Ed Cooley or his team.

“I just didn’t think as a group we were fundamentally sound the last 20 minutes in order to advance in this tournament,” Cooley reasoned. “Those kids are hurting in there (in the locker room). I’m proud of our group this season. I think we had a year no one expected.”

Certainly, no one expected the way the game ended. Not after a stunning first half by Providence, and an equally stunning fall in the second half.

Perhaps the best way to describe it – it was a tale of two halves? It wasn’t exactly the best of times for the Friars, to be sure.

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Providence, USC pick up where they left off 03.14.17 at 6:24 pm ET
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The Friars are ready to go in Dayton. (John Rooke photo)

The Friars are ready to go in Dayton. (John Rooke photo)

It isn’t a long and storied history between the two programs, but their most recent meeting on the hardwood has had lingering effects for both sides.

As Providence and USC prepare for their Wednesday night First Four meeting in Dayton, Ohio, March Madness fans might recall the two teams tipped-off the “madness” part of it all in last year’s tournament. As the 9-seed against USC’s 8th seeded Trojans, the Friars got a layup from Rodney Bullock with 1.5 seconds remaining off an inbounds pass from Drew Edwards, advancing PC to the 2nd round.

USC gave the Friars the opportunity to win, however, thanks to missing the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw on the other end of the floor. And while the key players on both teams have largely changed over the past year, for those that were in Raleigh, North Carolina last March they remember it well.

“We remember it,” said Jordan McLaughlin, an honorable mention all-Pac-12 guard this season for the Trojans, who scored 15 points with 5 assists and 4 steals in the one point loss. “It’s something that’s in the back of our minds.”

“Last year, that was a great experience,” was Rodney Bullock’s recollection, a 2nd team all-Big East forward this year who put up a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double against the Trojans and scored the decisive basket. “I felt like that helped us (this year), and just hopefully we need to make shots and just carry out our game plan, and I think we’ll be fine.”

USC’s team has had the greater turnover of the two teams from a year ago, with only three players returning this season who had a significant impact on that 70-69 final in Raleigh. But those three appear to be the Trojans’ main threat to gaining at least a measure of revenge against Providence this year. McLaughlin, 6-10 sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright, 6-5 junior Elijah Stewart and 6-11 sophomore center Chimezie Metu, who was a role player a year ago (and Pac-12 Most Improved this year) will have the Friars busy trying to defend them.

“This kid McLaughlin, I think, is their glue guy,” Ed Cooley explained. “He’s very talented. He’s the maestro for them, one of the best guards in the country. We’ve got our hands full with him.

“I think both teams are totally different,” Cooley added. “We have five of our nine-man rotation that are first-year guys. I know USC has a very young team, but they have a core group of guys that played in the game much like ours, but same systems, different personalities.”

One thing seems certain, however, as the Friars and Trojans meet on the basketball court for just the 3rd time in their storied pasts. Both teams, using last year as the stepping stone, believe this season’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament is validation for what they’re trying to build.

“We’re 328 out of 351 (teams) in experience in the country,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We replaced our upperclassmen (on that team) with four freshmen and we had two transfers. This is the NCAA Tournament. And this is what you work hard for all season, we’re excited to be here.”

“There’s a different excitement in me,” Cooley explained. “This is the fourth excitement I’ve had. I’m happy. I can’t tell you how happy and how blessed I am to be sitting here in front of you. I’m still pinching myself. I can’t believe we’re here. Don’t forget, we were picked ninth in the Big East.”

Seems like the happy feeling on both sides could last a while longer – at least until the final buzzer Wednesday night, that is.

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Friars arrive in Dayton, prep for USC 03.14.17 at 9:16 am ET
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There’s something to be said for getting out of town, at just the right time.

With a snowstorm barreling down on the northeast, travel plans involving east coast teams in this week’s NCAA tournament have been adjusted and in some cases, moved up so the weather won’t keep anyone from arriving for their appointed dates on the dance card.

In Providence’s case, the 11th seeded Friars are scheduled to face fellow-11th seed Southern Cal in the First Four at Dayton, Ohio Wednesday night. But because of the snow, it took most of the day Monday for the NCAA to work out the team charter flight sending the players, coaches, band, cheerleaders, media and some supporters out of Rhode Island.

Once arrangements had been set, the charter flight left T.F. Green at 5:30 p.m. Monday evening and arrived two-and-a-half hours later in Dayton, Ohio, to bagpipes playing the school fight song (“When the Saints go Marching In”) and local organizers greeting the team and personnel.

The First Four games in Dayton tip-off Tuesday night, with 16-seeds Mount St. Mary’s (the Northeast Conference champ) and New Orleans (winner of the Southland Conference) squaring off at 6:40 p.m. ET, followed by 11-seeds Wake Forest (ACC at-large) and Kansas State (Big 12 at large).

Those four teams arrived earlier Tuesday, in time for open workouts and interview sessions at the University of Dayton Arena which were previously scheduled. In places like Buffalo, for instance, where games begin Thursday there was an effort to move those eight schools into the area 24-hours earlier than previously scheduled because of the storm bearing down on the northeast.

Top-seeded Villanova was expected to depart Philadelphia Monday evening, ahead of a predicted 8-to-12 inches of snow there, while other schools affected by the east coast snow include Maryland, Seton Hall, VCU, Vermont, Virginia and Rhode Island – as well as Providence.

In Rhode Island’s case, as of early Monday they were prepared to wait out the storm and depart for Sacramento, CA and their 1st round game with Creighton on Wednesday.

The Friars will have an open workout at UD Arena Tuesday afternoon at 2:20 p.m., with media interviews taking place just prior. Wednesday, North Carolina Central faces Cal-Davis in a match-up of 16-seeds at 6:40 p.m., followed by the Friars and Trojans at approximately 9:10.

All post-season broadcasts for the Friars will air on 103.7 WEEI-FM and friars.com.

Friars reach NCAA’s, but Rams bump them down the dance card 03.12.17 at 9:01 pm ET
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They’ve met 127 times previously on the basketball floor and Rhode Island has certainly won its’ share over the past 97 years. But without playing a game this time, Rhody’s Rams may have dealt Providence’s Friars a loss they weren’t expecting.

As expected, Providence reached the NCAA Tournament as at large pick and one of seven Big East teams selected. But NCAA Tournament Committee chairman Mark Hollis confirmed to Westwood One Radio that Rhode Island’s Atlantic-10 title win over VCU Sunday knocked the Friars down a peg when it came to seeding.

“Rhode Island won (their conference), so they couldn’t qualify as one of the 36 at-large teams,” Hollis told Westwood One. “They pushed Providence down the board by winning, so perhaps that’ll be a big story in Rhode Island?”

Instead of a 9, 10 or even an 11 seed, the Friars did receive an 11 seed for the tournament, but they will face USC in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio Wednesday night in a “play in” contest, with the winner moving on in the East Regional to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a Friday game against 6th seeded (and American Athletic Conference winner) SMU.

Bottom line – Providence was one of the Last Four teams into the tournament per the selection committee chair, despite finishing in a tie for third in the Big East Conference and finishing 3-1 against Marquette and Xavier. Both the Golden Eagles (10 seed in the East against South Carolina) and the Musketeers (11 seed in the West, playing Maryland) received higher seeds and avoided the First Four “play in.”

“We’re excited to be back,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said as the brackets were revealed, as the Friars reach the NCAA’s for a school-record fourth straight year. “We’ve earned our way into the tournament. As long as you’re there, you have a chance to advance. We have a quick turnaround, they (USC’s Trojans) have a quick turnaround, and we’ve got to do a great job as a staff to get our team familiar with the way they play.”

That shouldn’t be too much of a problem, as the Friars faced USC last year in an NCAA first-round game at Raleigh, North Carolina. Ninth-seeded PC beat the No.8  Trojans 70-69 last March 17th, as Rodney Bullock converted an in-bounds play for a layup at the end. Still, it’s highly unusual to see a rematch occur from a 1st round contest from the previous season.

“Our key guys were in that game,” Cooley said. “Jalen (Lindsey), Kyron (Cartwright), Rodney (Bullock), we have an older person in Emmitt (Holt) and Isaiah Jackson. We’ve got to make sure our younger guys are emotionally prepared for that stage, and hopefully we will be.

“We’ve always played with a chip on our shoulder,” Cooley added. “Remember, we were picked 9th in the league and we ended up in 3rd. That’s the way I coach. I want our kids to be edgy, but I want them to be respectful of the game.”

Even if the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee wasn’t terribly respectful of the Friars, in return.

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Villanova rules supreme over Big East, beats Creighton for tournament title 03.11.17 at 8:26 pm ET
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Ask the Friars. Turnovers can hurt a team’s chances to win a game, about as quickly as a pickpocket can take your wallet on a New York subway.

Ten first half turnovers for Creighton got the ball rolling in Villanova’s direction – not that the defending national champs needed any help – and the Wildcats connected on seven-of-16 three’s in the 1st half as well to put a relatively early end to any BlueJays’ hopes for a Big East title.

Instead, the regular-season champ Cats dumped Creighton 74-60 to win their 3rd ever post-season Big East title, and put themselves in a good position to defend their national championship with a possible #1 overall seed for next week’s NCAA Tournament.

34 of Nova’s 36 1st half points (they led 36-22 at halftime) were scored by the Wildcats’ tested triumvirate of (Josh) Hart, (Jalen) Brunson and (Kris) Jenkins, with the two seniors Hart and Jenkins connecting on 5-of-10 from three.

Meanwhile, Creighton – known for its’ shooting prowess during the regular season – couldn’t connect as they usually do. A mere 2-for-12 (16 percent) from deep helped put the BlueJays in an early hole, one they ultimately could not climb out from. The 10 turnovers also led to an 11-0 Villanova scoring advantage off the mistakes.

Villanova’s lead grew to as large as 20 (46-26) in the opening five minutes of the second half, before a methodical charge back by Creighton pulled the Jays within 12 (54-42) on a Cole Huff three just before the under eight-minute time out.

The margin was still 12 with 3:34 to play, when the Big East Freshman of the Year, Creighton’s 7-foot center Justin Patton, picked up his fourth foul. The Wildcats then forced Patton into his 5th foul less than a half-minute later with Hart, the Big East Player of the Year, attacking the Jays’ middle and ultimately sealing Creighton’s fate.

Hart led Villanova with 29 points, and was named the Dave Gavitt Big East Tournament MVP for the second time in three years. Brunson added 17 more for the Wildcats. Huff led Creighton with 13 points, and 1st team all-Big East guard Marcus Foster also scored 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting. The Jays tied a season high with 17 total turnovers.

“We just had to set a tone,” Hart said. “Seton Hall came out and punched us in the mouth yesterday (Friday). Accolades are nice, but all I care about is winning.”

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Villanova, Creighton advance to Big East Final 03.10.17 at 11:15 pm ET
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It was close for the defending national champs. Real close.

Yes, Villanova won the NCAA crown a year ago, but they couldn’t win the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Instead, Seton Hall managed to put their own name in the league record book by beating the Wildcats in the 2016 league finals.

Friday night’s first semifinal of 2017 featured a rematch of last season’s title game, and the Pirates almost forced the Cats to walk the plank, again. That is, until the Player of the Year played the role of swashbuckler, swooping in to save his team in the end. Josh Hart scored 19 points with 10 rebounds, including the game-winner with 9.6 seconds to play on a put-back of a Kris Jenkins miss, and it was Villanova coming from behind to beat Seton Hall 55-53 at a sold-out Garden in New York.

Hart’s rebound of Jenkins’ miss, plus a free throw, provided the winning margin – that almost wasn’t. The Pirates’ Angel Delgado missed a point-blank jump hook with a second left on the Garden clock that could have forced overtime, but his shot rimmed out. After the miss Delgado, the nation’s leading rebounder this season, was inconsolable as he lay face-down on the Garden floor, as his teammates attempted to pick him up.

Seton Hall carried a 7-point lead into the halftime locker room thanks to an outstanding defensive effort, and some poor Nova foul shooting, limiting the Wildcats to a mere 20 points in the opening 20 minutes. Villanova scored 108 points in Thursday’s quarterfinal win against St. John’s.

But while Hart and Jalen Brunson (13 points) largely led a renewed 2nd half effort against the Pirates, the Hall kept up the pace and Khadeen Carrington’s 3-point play gave his team a 53-52 lead with 1:43 left. Both teams had two more chances to score, but came up empty, until Hart’s rebound and foul off Jenkins’ miss.

Seton Hall had a five-game winning streak snapped with the loss, and ended a run that had seen them win six of seven at MSG, with three wins over nationally-ranked teams dating back to last season.

For Villanova, which had beaten the Pirates by an average of 26 points in two regular season wins, the 20 points in the first half was a season-low. In their previous low effort (22 against Virginia), the Cats managed to come from behind and win that one as well.

Perhaps that’s as good a reason as any why Villanova is a national champ, as they look toward a possible repeat. But they’ve got one more to play closer to home Saturday night – and that’s one they couldn’t get a year ago.

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Friars fumble their way out of Big East Tournament 03.10.17 at 7:19 am ET
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Ed Cooley and the Friars lost in the Big East Tournament. (Noah K. Murray/USA Today Sports)

Ed Cooley and the Friars lost in the Big East Tournament. (Noah K. Murray/USA Today Sports)

It was pretty simple, really.

Hold onto the ball, and the other team gets fewer shots at the basket. But holding onto the ball was a real problem for Providence the entire night against the Creighton BlueJays, and the third-seeded Friars dropped a surprising 70-58 decision to the sixth-seeded Jays in the Big East tournament quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden in New York late Thursday night.

“Well, that was a masterpiece there,” PC coach Ed Cooley said in the aftermath of the turnover-fest, watching his team commit a season high 22 miscues leading to 26 Creighton points. “We just didn’t play well. I give Creighton a lot of credit. That was, pick who played worse in that game.”

Cooley would pick his Friars, for certain. The BlueJays outscored PC 26-8 on the turnovers, and coupling that with a less-than-mediocre performance from the free throw line as well (14-for-26), “stinker” pretty much sums it up.

“I thought we were lackadaisical. We just didn’t play well,” Cooley reasoned further. “We picked a bad time to play our worst game in probably five or six weeks.

“If you had told me that they (Creighton) would be 4-for-20 (from three) and miss those free throws and have only seven assists I’d like to say we have a chance to win the game,” Cooley added. “But again, give them credit.”

Providence played with a strong defensive effort in the opening 20 minutes, holding the Big East’s best field goal shooting team (51 percent on the year) to a mere 37 percent performance from the floor, and the Friars led by 30-27 at the break.

But the BlueJays came out in the second half with their own strong effort, scoring 10 unanswered points to seize the lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the way. The Friars had their chances – numerous chances – to catch the Jays, only to either end up fumbling away a possession, or miss free throws down the stretch.

“I think a lot of them were mental mistakes, they really were,” Cooley explained. “For whatever reason, guys, it happens. You get games like that, normally games like that in November and December. But come March you’ve got to try to play as clean as you can and we just didn’t play clean.”

That might serve as the understatement of the season, at least to this point. Providence has its season-best six-game winning streak snapped as the Friars fall to 20-12 overall, and they now await their fate from the NCAA Selection Committee coming Sunday.

Pretty simple, really.

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Providence’s Ed Cooley named Big East Coach of the Year by NBC Sports 03.08.17 at 7:22 pm ET
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NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Providence

Ed Cooley was named Big East Coach of the Year by NBC Sports. (Stew Milne/USA Today Sports)

Remember when the Friars lost to Boston College two days before Christmas?

Providence was rolling along through the non-conference portion of the schedule at 10-2, and building momentum for what ultimately proved to be a tough start to the Big East slate.

Then, the Eagles burst the balloon at Conte Forum, rolling over PC 79-67 and exposing a team that physically had not arrived. They were too immature. And mentally, they weren’t ready for the road ahead, either.

Ed Cooley knew he had a job on his hands, or the season could have quickly spiraled down the drain.

It took a while to figure this team out. The Friars struggled out of the Big East gate on the road at Xavier and Butler to start the New Year, and following a home win over Georgetown, quickly dropped two more – including a shocker at DePaul, where Kyron Cartwright missed a layup at the buzzer that could have won it.

Providence had a seven-point lead in the game with 90 seconds to play. Nope, they just weren’t ready to play in this league. Yet.

What transpired thereafter took some time to build, but it was a slow-build to the point where the Friars are now the hottest team in the Big East with six straight wins going into the tournament at Madison Square Garden this week.

And Ed Cooley’s coaching job is getting noticed, after being named the Big East Coach of the Year Wednesday by NBCSports.com. The official league coaching honor (by vote of the 10 head coaches) went to Butler’s Chris Holtmann (over Cooley and Villanova’s Jay Wright), as the Bulldogs took 2nd place in the league after being picked for sixth in the preseason.
Included in that #2 finish were two wins over the regular season champ Villanova Wildcats. The Bulldogs finished 23-7 overall.

“I definitely thought Chris Holtmann deserved it,” Cooley said Wednesday afternoon in New York, prior to his radio show (on WEEI-FM 103.7). “He did a great job from start to finish. Butler is a very good team, but we’ve got our hands full with Creighton.”

When you consider some of the coaching names in PC’s Big East past (Rick Pitino, Rick Barnes, Pete Gillen, Tim Welsh) who also had title-contending teams, it’s a bit of a surprise no Friar head coach has ever managed to win the league’s top coaching honor.

Providence was a pre-season pick for 9th – next to last – in the 10-team league. They finished third. And after missing that layup at DePaul,

Cartwright was named 1st team All-District 1 by the USBWA (along with junior forward and PC leading scorer Rodney Bullock), the District 1 Player of the Year, and the Most Improved Player in the Big East Conference.

Quite the turnaround over two months’ time.

The Friars rebounded from a 3-6 start to conference play (settling at 4-8) before winning seven of nine in the second half, and ripping off six consecutive wins to end the regular season. Included in the run were consecutive wins over Top 25 RPI teams (Butler, Xavier, @ Creighton) that should have them in good shape come Selection Sunday.

A 4th straight 20-win season and a potential 4th straight NCAA berth seemed unlikely back in December. And that BC game?

That was a long time ago for these Friars, and their coach.

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Big East tournament preview: Who will cut down nets Saturday night? 03.07.17 at 12:20 pm ET
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NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Georgetown

Villanova appears to be the favorites to win the Big East Tournament. (Brad Mills/USA Today Sports)

So often at this time of year, you’ll hear the phrase “it’s wide open” when it comes to the Madness that is March.

As in this game, this tournament, this championship – being wide open, meaning anyone can win. But in the Big East, after the season the league has had this year, is this really the case?

And let’s go back a year, and consider the trail that Villanova’s Wildcats have blazed. A national championship, followed by an unprecedented fourth straight Big East regular season championship won over these past few months.

So, exactly how wide open is this tournament in New York this week?

Now, we’ll throw you a little cliché – this is why they play the games. It’s the 35th anniversary of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, and through the years, the Hall-of-Fame coaches and all-star players that have participated have always had one common thread.

Uncertainty.

Take last year, for example. Villanova won the Big East regular season, but lost to Seton Hall in the Tournament title game. The Wildcats went on to win the national crown, too. But in the Big East, where family bragging rights are on the line and the lights shine as brightly as any in the country, it’s hard to stay dominant over your kinfolk.

Sometimes, it’s just easier playing (and beating) someone you don’t know as intimately.

And in a year where the Big East has been one of the top two or three-rated RPI conferences in the country, there will be pressure to play well – and beat up on – teams from other leagues when the NCAA Tournament rolls around next week. Should the Big East receive seven bids to the Big Dance (70 percent of the league population), which is possible, the spotlight will shine on everyone as brightly as it ever has.

As for this week, it’s a simple Family Feud. When the shots start falling, and the screaming grows louder, and the pressure builds higher…there won’t be much of anything wide open. Except maybe for the lines to the concession stands or the restrooms.

March Madness has a way of rearranging priorities.

Tournament Favorite: Villanova

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Providence picked 9th in Big East preseason coaches poll 10.11.16 at 10:14 am ET
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Maybe Providence coach Ed Cooley has his bulletin board material?

And perhaps the Friars also have a lot of work to do before the season gets started next month. Both thoughts figure prominently into Cooley’s sixth team at Providence College for the 2016-17 season.

With Big East media day taking place at Madison Square Garden in New York on Tuesday, the Friars were selected ninth out of the 10 league teams in the preseason vote of the coaches. Of course, when you lose two NBA draft picks (Kris Dunn, Ben Bentil) from your roster, a rebuild is to be expected.

The Friars do have four players with starting experience returning (Kyron Cartwright, Rodney Bullock, Jalen Lindsey, Ryan Fazekas), but the Big East coaches have favored the teams with league-wide stars, and perhaps that’s the smart play for the start.

But each year in the first five seasons under Cooley, Providence has finished higher than selected by the coaches in the preseason.

Defending national champion Villanova, with preseason Player of the Year Josh Hart, is the overwhelming choice to defend its conference crown, with Xavier receiving the only other first-place vote (coaches can’t vote for their own teams). Creighton, Georgetown and Seton Hall round out the top five.

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