Sunday, March 15
Providence, Rhode Island
6:14 p.m. — Alumni Hall, Providence College
Selection Sunday party
In the moment, none of it feels ominous. The sense of foreboding will exist only in hindsight. The signs of an upset will be there only if you scramble your memory to make them appear. Right now in Providence, nothing points to five days from now, when seniors will be fighting tears and coaches will be shaking their heads, when they’ll become a footnote in some other team’s Cinderella run. Right now they’re surrounded by cameras and cheerleaders and fans, and they’re watching Greg Gumbel on a JumboTron, and they’re waiting to discover their fate.
Gumbel speaks. Providence is a 6-seed. This feels good. This feels right. They will play the winner of a game between Dayton and Boise State, on Friday, in Columbus, Ohio. The band is playing. The crowd is screaming. The players are clapping. They are happy. They believe they will win.
7:14 p.m. — Coaches’ offices
“I’m going to assume we’re playing Dayton, right?”
That’s Ed Cooley, Providence’s fourth-year head coach. He’s finished his interviews, his handshaking and picture-taking with donors and fans, and now he’s come barreling into the offices, ready to work.
Kevin Kurbec, a player development and video operations assistant, shrugs and nods. “I mean, they’re playing a home game, right?”
It’s true. This will become one of the most-debated story lines of the tournament’s first week. Dayton is playing its opening game in its own arena, the only team in the men’s tournament that will do so. But it doesn’t stop there. Now associate head coach Bob Simon walks into the room and corrects the staff: “They’re playing two home games!”
This isn’t exactly true, but it might as well be. If Dayton gets by Boise State, the Flyers will play Providence in Columbus.
“How far away is Dayton from Columbus?” Cooley asks.
“Forty-five minutes, an hour,” says Kurbec.
Cooley shakes his head. He takes a deep breath. “I like the draw,” he says. “I just don’t like the location.” Whatever frustration he may have, for now, he tries to let it go. He takes another breath. “OK,” he says. “Help me out on this. I got nothing on these two teams. I don’t know style of play; I don’t know personnel. Nothing.”
And so begins the quick work at the beginning of any tournament for most higher seeds: trying to figure out who the hell you’re playing. It’s a challenge for any team, doubly so for the Friars, who have to prepare not only for one dangerous 11-seed, but for two. Here, now, the coaches make quick decisions. They’ll focus on their own team for the first half of the week. They’ll show no film of either potential opponent until Wednesday night, when all together, they’ll watch Dayton–Boise State. They will mention concepts and tendencies, doing work to get the players acquainted with their possible opponents, but not too much. No need to spend practice time on material that can become superfluous in just a few days.
But that’s for the players. The coaches will move forward as if preparing to play both teams. That starts by cutting tape and studying plays, but much of the work will be done later tonight, soliciting advice from colleagues around the country. “Call the coaches in your network,” Cooley says. “Some guys might not want to share anything, but whatever, let’s try.”
“You think this is good for us or bad for us?” asks Kurbec. Cooley looks over a Dayton stat sheet, but he doesn’t respond right away. “I think it’s bad,” Kurbec continues. “We’re so good at preparation, and now we only get two days.”
Cooley remains quiet while he studies the stats for each team. He can’t decide which matchup looks better for the Friars. “I’ll watch a game of each tonight,” he says. “Ah, whatever, I’ll watch two of each. We’ll figure ’em out.”
Cooley stands, gets ready to return to his office to make a few calls. “All right,” he says. “Let’s go down there and hoop.”
Monday, March 16
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
11:35 a.m. — Cooley’s office
Already, the coaches are figuring it out. Dayton is small but tough. It uses a seven-man rotation, with no player over 6-foot-6. “Basically, the whole team is like Archie,” says Cooley, referring to 36-year-old Flyers coach Archie Miller, who moves on the sideline like a tin can with a firecracker stuck inside it. “Angry, tough, scrappy.”
“They can be really, really good,” says Simon, who’s been assigned the lead on scouting Dayton, “or they can be terrible.”
“When they’re terrible,” Cooley asks, “what makes them terrible?”
They move to Boise State. “I think Boise can beat Dayton,” says assistant coach Brian Blaney, who’s been assigned to scout the Broncos. BSU’s coach, Leon Rice, comes from Mark Few’s staff at Gonzaga. His team runs a beautiful offense, with shooters at all five positions, led by potential NBA combo guard Derrick Marks.
“Even if you play him well,” says Blaney, “Marks can get 30 on you.”
The Friars are big and, at times, imposing — a team that succeeds by rebounding, closing passing lanes, and riding its perimeter scorers. Providence starts one 7-footer and brings another off the bench. The team has been criticized lately for lacking an identity, but the Friars have succeeded by adapting to opponents. They can play fast or slow, defend in man-to-man or zone, and initiate the offense through penetration or by passing into the post. They run more sets than any opponent could hope to learn on short notice, and they often change game plans completely after halftime, right when the other team will have no time to adjust.
But as much as anything, Cooley says, his confidence in his team comes from his players. There’s LaDontae Henton, a senior swingman and the Big East’s leading scorer. There’s Tyler Harris, the slender, athletic younger brother of Orlando Magic forward Tobias, and there are those two 7-footers, senior Carson Desrosiers and freshman Paschal Chukwu (a future lottery pick, according to Simon).
But the one who matters most is the one with the ball in his hands. And even as Cooley goes back and forth, thinking about each opponent his team might face, he finds comfort in one question. “If I’m one of these teams,” he says, “I’m thinking, How the hell are we gonna guard Kris Dunn?”
3:31 p.m. — Alumni Hall
Dunn’s appeal is instant and obvious. You walk into the gym and stand in a corner for 30 seconds, and no matter what you’re watching — a sprint, a live scrimmage, or just a few players talking — you know who’s the best player on the floor.
“Wooooo!” the 6-foot-3 point guard shouts as freshman 2-guard Jalen Lindsey hits a jumper. Dunn is loud and smiling and in constant motion. He claps. He screams. At one point, he holsters finger guns. His team is just running a shooting drill. But for Dunn, every make is cause for celebration.
Dunn was a McDonald’s All American in 2012, but he struggled as a freshman and took a medical redshirt as a true sophomore. This year, he emerged as a potential lottery pick, physically imposing and cocksure on both ends of the court. On defense, he will gamble, and he will burn you, but if he doesn’t, he will recover before you get a chance to burn him. On offense, he comes around ball screens with his shoulders pointed at the basket, and then he will turn the corner and dunk on you, or he’ll contort his body to finish around you, or, most likely of all, he’ll find a cutter or a shooter before you even notice the man was left open. Sometimes he’ll throw the ball into the stands. Sometimes he’ll send it caroming off the rim or the backboard. But even his mistakes will leave you reeling, desperate to figure him out because you know he’s unlikely to make the same mistake again.
“He’s the best point guard in the country,” says God Shammgod.
Yes, that God Shammgod, the one who carried Providence to the Elite Eight in 1997; who ate Mike Bibby alive in a loss to Arizona while the Wildcats were on their way to a title; who had perhaps the best handle in NBA history, despite playing only 20 NBA games; who patented a move so iconic that it became known as the Shammgod and has been copied by Kyrie Irving and Manu Ginobili and hundreds of other amateurs and pros; and who, perhaps most impressive of all, spent March 1997 making then-teammate Austin Croshere appear cool.
Shammgod spent eight years playing in China, where he was twice named league MVP. While there, he used Rosetta Stone to learn conversational Chinese, and he worked as a special assistant for the national team, tutoring Chinese guards. Now he’s back, finishing up his degree at Providence and working as an undergraduate student assistant for the team. During the hour before practice, Shammgod appears to have full reign of the gym, floating around to work one-on-one with players as they trickle in from class. He and Dunn work together almost every day. Lately, Shammgod has been trying to get Dunn to put more touch on his passes, to maintain his aggression while playing under control.
Players and coaches and friends all call him Sham, but if you go out into the Alumni Hall parking lot, you’ll find a silver BMW. The license plate says GOD.
Tuesday, March 17
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
10:33 a.m. — Cooley’s office
It’s been nearly two days, and the uncertainty has grown frustrating. Providence watches more film than most teams. (“I thought it was almost too much when I got here,” says Andre LaFleur, a former UConn assistant now on the Friars’ staff. “But our guys really lock in.”) They pride themselves in quickly — and deeply — absorbing the intricacies of opposing systems and personnel. “This is the first time all year we have a game where we don’t know who we’re playing,” says Kurbec. “Think about that.”
Cooley’s ready to start preparing for something — anything. “Are there any similarities?” he asks his assistants. “Anything both teams do that we can work on?”
Both teams are led by combo guards, Boise State’s Marks and Dayton’s Jordan Sibert. That’s something. That’s a start. Both teams leave the corners open on defense. That’s something else. Perhaps they can work with that.
Other than that? “Nothing,” says Cooley. “Zero. I got no clue.”
5:03 p.m. — Film room
Cooley has a slogan. He’s written it on the whiteboard: T.J.D.K. Anyone know what this means?
“They just don’t know,” he says. “They. Just. Don’t. Know.”
He heard Dunn say it earlier in the week. Now it’s become the week’s motto. Here, the Friars have a gift rarely afforded to higher-seeded teams: They can play the “nobody believes in us” card. Many pundits have already declared them vulnerable. Soon, President Obama will pick them to go down in the first round. When the betting line is unveiled, they’ll be favored, but just barely. Says Cooley: “We have to earn our national respect.”
Now he wants to show some film. They’re still not watching either potential opponent, so instead, they’ll watch themselves. Cooley had Kurbec put together a few clips of them making the plays that win games: grabbing two-handed rebounds, rotating properly on defense, hitting a cutter with a perfect pass, finishing strong near the rim. Just before the lights turn off, Cooley turns to Kurbec. “Why don’t you handle this?” he says. “I think they need to hear a different voice.”
The more time you spend around Cooley, the more you see moments like this. He is constantly soliciting input and advice, collecting viewpoints before making decisions. All coaches rely on their assistants. They need others to scout, to work with players one-on-one, to provide their own areas of expertise. Yet you see Cooley turning to the people around him for input on decisions some others would probably make alone. Where does my head need to be right now, he asked his staff on the night of Selection Sunday. When a visitor comes to practice, he’ll ask, What did you notice? Anything in particular stand out to you?
Kurbec takes control and cycles through the clips, and afterward, Cooley returns to the front of the room. “I was talking to the coaches the other day,” he says. “We were going back and forth — what was our biggest win of the year? Coach Simon said at Georgetown. I said Butler. I’m curious: What do you guys think?”
Henton speaks up. Butler, he says. They needed contributions from more players. Big plays came from unexpected spots. He looks at Cooley: “Man, you was in my shit that game!” He laughs, and Dunn interjects: “Yeah, but then you started cooking!”
Cooley keeps going around the room. A few say Butler, others Georgetown. The win against the Hoyas had broken the program’s 31-game road losing streak against ranked teams. Teams rarely take time to look back in the days before the NCAA tournament, when it’s so easy for teams to become consumed by what’s next. But the Friars still lack an opponent to scout, so instead they reflect, reminiscing about two nights when they played their best.
This is important to Cooley — pausing here and there to consider the path he and those around him have taken. He grew up nearby, in South Providence, one of eight children born to parents who lacked the means to provide him a proper home. He remembers eating sugar sandwiches because they couldn’t afford meat, pouring water on his cereal because they couldn’t afford milk. He bounced around from house to house, living with friends, and another family helped him attend prep school, then Stonehill College, where he played basketball and was one of the only African American students on campus. Years later, he became a graduate assistant, and then an assistant coach to Al Skinner at Boston College. From BC he went to Fairfield and then back home to Providence, as the Friars’ first minority coach and the heir to an absolute mess. Four years later, the Friars are in their second consecutive NCAA tournament. At times, he says, he still feels guilt over his own success. Cooley earns a reported $2 million a year. Some of his siblings still struggle to get by. “I’ll open the fridge to get some food,” he says, “or I’ll turn on the light switch and see that the lights are working, and sometimes it still feels strange. Sometimes it almost takes my breath away.”
Here in the film room after a while, everyone goes quiet. Cooley motions for a manager to turn off the lights for more film.
Wednesday, March 18
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
10:30 a.m. — Alumni Hall
The Friars have just finished their last practice before heading to the airport to catch a plane to Columbus. “I like us,” Cooley says. “I still don’t think people think we’re good, but I like us.
“I like our energy. I like our toughness. And I like our fuckin’ swag.”
11:24 p.m. — Film room, Crowne Plaza Hotel
Watching Dayton vs. Boise State
“Oh, man,” says Cooley. “I really don’t know who I want to win this game.”
Just then, Dayton’s Sibert comes off a pin-down screen, catches the ball behind the 3-point line, then shoots and scores. “Ohhhh!” the Providence players shout. Dayton leads, 56-55. Marks gets stripped as he attempts a potential game winner for Boise State. The home crowd cheers. The room goes silent. “That’s a wrap,” says Blaney, the assistant who’s spent the last three days scouting Boise State. All of those hours watching tape, those phone calls, all the thought he put into defending their shooters and attacking their press — all meaningless. Blaney pauses, then shakes his head and looks down. “I had ’em, too.”
11:41 — Film room
The players go to bed. Now, finally, the coaches can sharpen their focus. One opponent, not two. Finally, it feels the way a tournament week should feel. Finally, their corner of the bracket has taken shape. For more than 90 minutes, they discuss how to attack, which players to use, how to defend.
On ball screens: “Let’s switch 1 through 4, then plug with the 5.”
On defensive shape: “Boise packed the paint and it worked. We have to keep it compact. They want to pull it out and spread it and go.”
On personnel: “The question is, can Carson and Paschal guard in this game? They’re gonna try to go right into those guys’ chests and bully them.” “You gotta give Carson a chance. He might be able to swallow ’em up.”
On what to expect from Dayton’s defense: “They’re gonna shrink the floor on us. If we run flex, they’re not switching. They’re running through. I think they’re gonna double and trap Kris on ball screens.”
And just after 1 a.m., here’s Cooley, on what ultimately matters: “Kris and LaDontae have to be the two best players on the floor. Ben [Bentil, a freshman power forward] has to be a Tasmanian devil, flying all over the place. Carson has to be a presence. And Jalen has to hit a shot or two. We do that, we’re good.”
It almost sounds simple.
Thursday, March 19
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
9:07 a.m. — Ohio State basketball practice facility
The tournament will tip off in just more than three hours, and here, now, on the fourth morning since Selection Sunday, Providence can begin to prepare in earnest.
The Friars plan for damn near everything. They expect a high trap on ball screens with Dunn. “When that comes,” Simon tells Dunn, “lob it to Carson at the foul line.” They like their options when Desrosiers has the ball in that position. Big and skilled, he’s fully capable of initiating their offense. “Carson, you can create, or you can shoot that 15-footer all day.” They keep going. When Dunn penetrates, Lindsey and Henton should lift from the corners to the slots. Bentil should get to the baseline, in position for a lob or an offensive board.
Minor defensive strategies get just as much focus. In the zone, coaches want the five creeping up toward the free throw line. “They want to create from the nail,” says Simon. “Just step up and take that away. You’re too long for them. They can’t pass around you. That’ll shrink our zone and give them problems.”
Now they go into dummying Dayton’s movements, with Simon screaming directions at the scout team, coaching them through Dayton’s plays. “Dribble handoff! Flare, flare, flare! Fake that pin-down!”
When the tournament arrives, certain programs get described as “system teams”: Belmont with its motion and shooting, Dayton with its alpha ugliness, Georgetown with its Princeton offense, Louisville with its pressure and fast breaks. Providence is not one of those teams. It looks to exploit different advantages against different opponents. Besides, says LaFleur, “When you get to the tournament, it’s about, ‘Do we have guys who can take us where we need to go?’ You can prep for systems. You can’t prep for players.”
LaFleur would know. He was an assistant on the UConn team that Kemba Walker carried to the 2011 title. “If you have a player who changes the complexion of every game,” he says, “you have a chance.” He points at Henton, the Big East’s leading scorer, and Dunn, the conference co–player of the year. “Both of them are that good.”
Friday, March 19
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
1:30 p.m. — Ohio State basketball practice facility
At shootaround, Providence goes over Dayton again, this time with a focus on matchups. They cannot let Sibert, Dayton’s leading scorer, get free for any open shots. Point guard Scoochie Smith looks to penetrate and has “big balls.” Dyshawn Pierre will score in a variety of ways, and Kendall Pollard will bully taller defenders in the post.
“Little things are gonna mean a lot,” Cooley says when the Friars gather at the end of the session. “Loose balls. Charges. I like our energy and our preparation. If we’re disciplined and do what we do, we should dominate. Dominate the glass. Screen hard. Cut hard. Do that, and it’s 40 minutes to advance.”
9:07 p.m. — Nationwide Arena
It’s late. All across the country, most every other team has already played. Providence-Dayton will be the last first-round game to tip off, and, now, Henton is starting to get impatient. “I hate sitting around like this, man,” he says. His teammates are cocooned in Beats and Skullcandy and iPhone headphones. But not Henton. He’s tapping his feet, talking to no one: “I can’t listen to music. Can’t do it. I’m just ready to play.”
Tipoff has already been pushed from 9:57 p.m. to 10:45. Henton stands up, looks around, desperate for something to keep him busy before stepping on the court for what might be the last time.
“Is there a basketball around here?”
After stretching in the tunnel, the players take their seats in the locker room. It’s quiet for about 10 seconds, almost solemn, until Cooley steps to the whiteboard and speaks.
“Hey,” he says, “I don’t care if we tip off at 2 a.m. — we’re ready.” He puts his hands on his hips. His eyebrows sink, and his eyes float across the room. “Let’s face it,” he says. “We’re gonna have 500 or 600 fans. They’re gonna have 19,000.” The players nod. One claps. “This is what you dream about,” Cooley says. “In high school, when you’re being recruited. This stage. One shining moment. All of that.
“We’ve dummied plays. We’ve watched film. Go back to the summer. We’ve been in weight training. We’ve run sprints. Worked in the pool. All of that. This is where it leads.”
His voice rises. “It’s our fucking time.” Now a pause, a look around the room, and then his voice drops, quiet again. “Let’s go.”
In the tunnel, you can see them. The arena is packed, and they’re all wearing red. They’re chanting.
Let’s go Fly-ers!
Let’s go Fly-ers!
“Hey!” yells Bentil, the freshman. “Listen to that! We can pretend they’re saying, ‘Let’s go Friars!’” He claps once, to himself, and then smiles.
After one more stop in the locker room, the Friars are back in the tunnel, ready to take the court. They line up, and at the front Henton turns around. He nods, bouncing up and down, and the rest bounce with him. He looks to the sky and shouts.
Now he turns, nods again, and begins to run. “Let’s eeeeeaaaaaaaatttttt!!”
They do not eat. They do not dominate. Dayton plays too quick, too physical, too tough. Dunn spins into midrange jumpers, but they’re all challenged and most are missed. Henton keeps driving toward the rim, but he’s mostly stifled, left to throw up ill-fated floaters and wayward layups. The ball goes into Desrosiers, but just as fast as it gets there it’s poked away. “They’re 6-6, but they play like they’re 6-9,” Simon said of the Flyers’ post players earlier in the week. Right now, they’re playing like they’re 7-2.
And still, there are bright spots. Freshman Kyron Cartwright performs admirably while Dunn sits with foul trouble. Lindsey hits two 3s and looks to be the only Providence player whose shot feels right. The Friars defense keeps it close, and they head to the locker room at halftime down 28-25.
“Come on!” yells Desrosiers, walking through the tunnel. “Let’s go!” Inside the locker room, he keeps going: “They’ve had like three runs. We haven’t had any. We’re going to have some runs.”
Dunn speaks up: “We played terrible and we’re only down three. We got this.”
Shammgod’s a little more blunt. “We’re just better than them. It’s that simple. They are not that good.”
Cooley walks in and steps to the whiteboard. “Here’s what’s going to win the game for us,” he says. “No turnovers, finishing, and better transition D. Just be physical around the rim. We’re complaining about not getting calls. Maybe we don’t deserve the calls. Just finish.
“Honestly,” he says, “I don’t see a need for X-and-O adjustments. Our game plan is working. It’s not our defense. It’s our offense.” He goes through a few minor points — avoid fouls, throw crisper passes, drive when you see a lane. “We gotta be attack dogs,” Cooley says, shaking his head a little as he speaks. “We gotta play with that swag. We need some dog in us.” His eyes go wide. It appears as if Cooley wants to see the energy that got Providence this far but that has suddenly vanished in this game. His voice rises to a near scream.
“We’ve got 20 minutes left!” He points at Henton. “In your career!” A quick pause. “It’s that, or it’s we come back Sunday and we keep playing!” The players clap and nod, willing themselves to match his intensity. “There is no time for tomorrow. And that’s not giving you pressure. That’s just being real. That’s being as real as real can come.”
At first, Cooley’s speech seems like it might work. Providence’s first possession is crisp. Desrosiers gets a touch, holds the ball with confidence, and hits Lindsey for a 3. Tie game. But that’s it. Dayton begins to find gaps in the corners of the Friars’ zone, and with a little more than 10 minutes left to play, the Flyers extend their lead to nine with back-to-back 3s. In a game where scoring has seemed, at times, impossible, Dayton’s nine-point lead looks insurmountable.
As the second half wears on, Henton tries to take over. He is looking for his shot, spinning into the lane, trying to bully his way to the rim. He finds space. Hell, he finds layups, but they’re all challenged, and time and again, his shots rim out. Cooley calls himself a trusting coach. He trusts his players to correct their own mistakes. He wants them to know he will stay with them no matter what, so they maintain the confidence that makes them effective.
But tonight Henton will not recover from his own mistakes. Neither will Dunn. Henton keeps driving, and he keeps missing. Dunn keeps looking for space that isn’t there, losing the ball to defenders or out of bounds. Tonight, Henton and Dunn were supposed to be the best players on the floor. But they’re overwhelmed by a unit of undersize and hyperactive Dayton defenders who dart into every passing lane, challenge every shot, and turn Providence’s typically well-run offense into an incoherent mess.
It’s already bad. It gets worse. With 3:42 remaining and Providence trailing by eight, Cooley enters the huddle and knocks down a chair, trying to rally his team. The whistle blows, and Cooley is charged with a technical foul. It’s a laughable, ridiculous call, and soon it will be identified as such on TV. But in truth, by this point, it barely matters. Dayton has outplayed them. The Friars are done.
Final: Dayton 66, Providence 53.
Only now can you begin to wonder where it went wrong. Maybe there was another way to prepare. Maybe something could have been changed months ago in the weight room, days ago at Alumni Hall, or even earlier tonight, in the huddle or out on the floor. Now you can wonder if the game would have turned out differently in another arena or another state, or if the Friars would have fared better with a full week to prepare.
The tournament takes all of those variables and makes them absolutes. There are no alternate realities. You play when and where you’re told, and you play once, and if it goes well — if you perform or you get lucky — you play again. If not, then you are left in a locker room much like this one, trying not to cry, perhaps not even to think. You are waiting, tapping your toes or staring into your towel, until finally your coach steps in front of you and searches for something to say.
Cooley speaks. “Let’s reflect. We had a great year. It’s unfortunate the way it ended.” He pauses. Perhaps this is where the coach of a plucky underdog would tell his team he loves the way it fought, that he couldn’t be more proud. But not here. Not after getting upset. Not after that. Cooley is confident his players feel appreciated — they’ve heard it from him again and again. For now, perhaps they can handle a more difficult message.
“We weren’t tough today,” he says. “The most physical team won. I won’t lie to you. We got bullied. I wish I could lie to you — so bad — but I can’t. They were a tougher team.”
He looks at his seniors: Henton, Desrosiers, and little-used reserve Ted Bancroft. He tells them he loves them and he’s proud. They’ll graduate soon. Their lives are filled with possibility. They should be proud of all they’ve accomplished.
He looks at his underclassmen. He tells them they’ll be back, they’ll keep working, they’ll remember this feeling and convert it to fuel.
Soon there will be time for wondering what else could have happened, if any changes could have produced another result. But the bus is waiting, and the plane departs in about 12 hours, and for Providence, there is now only one truth.
“We’re not advancing,” says Cooley. “It’s time for us to take our asses home.”