By Austin Lawton | @AJLawton1
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO — In a tournament of surprises, Providence College hopes to be the next one.
The Friars are advancing to the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 25 years, their sixth in program history. The fourth seed is the highest for Providence in school history. The 1997 Friars, seeded tenth, reached a regional championship game. Providence comes into the Sweet 16 after a 28-point victory over Richmond, its most one-sided NCAA win.
Providence is making its sixth NCAA tournament appearance in coach Ed Cooley’s 11th season. Cooley came into the tournament winning 2022 Big East Coach of the Year, the first Providence head coach to win the award, and was nominated for the 2022 Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year, the first Providence coach nominated for the award.
Providence is led by Nate Watson, who is averaging 13.5 points and 5.3 rebounds, and shoots 55%. In the two NCAA games, Watson has averaged 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and made 50% of his shots.
When asked about what making the Sweet 16 means for Providence College and its men’s basketball program, Cooley knows the potential that the institution can reach.
“My job is to promote the program, as well as the college, our city, and state, when I have the opportunity to get on this stage,” Cooley said. “We hope it increases our profile in recruiting. We hope it increases our fundraising and applications. Again, we’re a tuition-driven institution. So anytime you can have a stage like this and promote your school as well as your brand, I want people to know who we are as people.”
Some Providence fans also had an extra reason to be excited about their team going to the Sweet 16. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft lent the Friars the NFL team’s plane in order to take staff and a few fans to the Sweet 16. Cooley, who is a self-proclaimed Patriots fan, is thankful for the gesture.
“He supports us,” Cooley said of Kraft. “He supported a lot of other teams in New England. I don’t know how many people would do that for a small college to literally send their custom plane, their logoed plane. I’m pretty sure a lot of our fans will be on it. They’re big Patriots fans. I love football. My team looks like a football team. We’re not very pretty.”
The Jayhawks look to continue to make even more history in the tournament. Kansas advanced to the regional semifinal with a win over eighth-seeded Creighton on March 19. Under Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Self, the Jayhawks are 8-2 in Sweet 16 appearances since 2004, and have won their last three games. The 2022 tournament marks Kansas’ 50th NCAA appearance.
The Jayhawks are led by national player of the year nominee Ochai Agbaji, a senior averaging 19.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 47% shooting and 40% 3-point shooting. Agbaji is backed up by junior Christian Braun, averaging 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and senior transfer Remy Martin, who has averaged 17.5 points, 4.0 assists, and 4.0 rebounds on 59% from the field and 50% from three in the tournament.
When Martin was asked about his impactful start to the tournament, he is grateful to just be playing after battling injuries in recent years.
“For me, I’m just — first off, I’m just happy that I’m healthy and I’m feeling a lot better and feeling like myself,” Martin said. “I’m happy that I get to just be on the court, whether if I’m starting, whether if I’m playing little minutes. I’m just happy to go out there and represent and go as hard as I can for my teammates.”
Self is in his 19th season at Kansas. Having coached great talents throughout the years, Agbaji’s success adds to that historic list.
“He’s one of those talented kids that have gone from here to here, and so that’s just due to his commitment and his work ethic,” Self said. “We could not be more proud of him on how he’s represented himself and us the last four years. He’s been named, I believe, first-team All-American on the four or five of the major All-American things. So if you’re a first-team All-American you’re a top five player. I don’t think it’s a shock that he’s part of the Naismith award finalist.”
In a wild tournament, the Friars are a team playing with a chip on their shoulders, and Self acknowledges that.
“Ed’s done an unbelievable job, won 25 and wins the Big East, have a chip every time they play, which is part of being a good salesmen,” Self said. “They have gotten respect and they’ve earned it all…Luck doesn’t win close games. Toughness and skill and execution does. They’ve got a lot to be proud of. I know they’re going into this game believing that if they play well, they can handle us. We know that we’re going to have to play well to do that to them.”