The Providence College basketball team hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 10 years. The University of North Carolina hoop team has won two national championships in that decade.
PC coach Ed Cooley has never been to the NCAA’s as a head coach. Roy Williams, the coach of UNC, will be coaching his 84th NCAA post-season game. Williams, who coached perennial national power Kansas before moving to UNC, has been to 24 NCAA tourneys as a head coach. His NCAA record is 62-21.
Call Friday’s matchup between the Tar Heels and your hometown Friars a clash of the PC overachievers versus the UNC underachievers. As is usually the case in Chapel Hill, Carolina is loaded with top talent. Yet they haven’t played all that well in the Atlantic Coast Conference, always one of the nation’s toughest.
UNC rattled off a winning streak of a dozen straight games earlier in the season, but finished with two losses. Carolina also had some fine early season wins over such nationally-ranked foes as Louisville, Michigan State and Duke. By contrast, PC was on its way to a mediocre season in the reshaped Big East, but caught fire at the end of the campaign, peaked at precisely the right time and won improbable conference championship, the school’s first in 20 years.
PC had some help; doesn’t every Cinderella team? Seton Hall upset Villanova in the early round of the Big East, which gave the Friars an easy path to the league finals against Creighton. PC played a very tough 2-3 Syracuse-like zone defense to defeat Creighton and take home the trophy and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it.
UNC has two very good players in Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo, the nephew of NBA star and high-scorer Bob McAdoo. PC’s best player is Bryce Cotton, a shooting guard, who excelled in the Big East championship game. But the Friar strength in this remarkable end of season run has been the contributions made by everyone on a team that doesn't have much depth.
There is an old cliché in basketball: even the best coaches can’t teach height. UNC is tall up front, so PC’s defense has to keep the Tar Heels out of the paint. Cooley isn’t giving away his strategy, but here’s thinking that perhaps he comes out with a man-to-man defense for the first couple of offensive sets and then settles into the 2-3 zone defense that was so efficient against Creighton.
UNC is favored. Carolina is a 6th seed compared to 11th for PC. The betting spread is 4 points in UNC’s favor.
While Carolina has a talent edge, PC comes into this first-round game in San Antonio Friday night with momentum. The New York Post today named PC as one of the underdog teams that can pull of a first-round upset. That would the raise the spirits of hoop fans from Westerly to Woonsocket and from Big East devotees everywhere.