After winning the Big East Tournament to secure its first NCAA Tournament bid in a decade, Providence College now has its sights set on North Carolina in tonight's East Region opener in San Antonio.
By Michael Parente
Assuming they stuck around the hotel all day and didn’t go sightseeing at The Alamo, the Providence College Friars had to be encouraged by what unfolded yesterday during the real opening round of the NCAA Tournament (no one in their right mind should refer to it as the “second round” no matter what it says on the marquee).
As the 11th-seeded Friars prepare to tackle 6th-seeded North Carolina tonight at 7:30 in their East Regional opener at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, they can take solace in the fact Day 1 of the Round of 64 featured a handful of upsets by lower seeds, which may or may not be theme of this year’s tournament. Only time will tell. A few underdogs win opening-round games every year, but it’s rare to see those double-digits seeds survive beyond the Sweet 16. That’s when you know it’s truly the year of the dark horse, which we can assume Providence is rooting for as it prepares to make its own Cinderella run.
No. 11 Dayton upended 6th-seeded Ohio State and 12th-seeded Harvard topped No. 5 seed Cincinnati during the afternoon slate and 12th-seeded North Dakota State capped a wild evening of primetime games by beating No. 5 Oklahoma in overtime. No. 12 seed North Carolina State and No. 10 Saint Joseph’s also both went to overtime before eventually losing to 5th-seeded Saint Louis and 7th-seeded Connecticut, respectively.
That’s a solid day for the underdogs and great news for a Providence team that’s spent most of the season as one of the most unlikely stories in college basketball. Starting in November when Rodney Bullock and Miles Austin were suspended from the team and Kris Dunn went down for the season with a shoulder injury, the Friars battled adversity and limited depth to stay afloat in the competitive Big East Conference. They got hot in mid-January, winning five consecutive games to spark the discussion about a possible trip to the NCAAs, and they got hot again last week by running the table in the conference tournament to secure the school’s first tournament bid in 10 years.
They’re only a No. 11 in the East seed despite winning their conference, perhaps an indictment of the newly-realigned Big East on the behalf of the selection committee. Whatever the case, Providence must now face must Roy Williams’ Tar Heels, one of the most prolific schools in NCAA Tournament history, a five-time national champion with an NCAA-record 18 Final Four appearances. North Carolina has also qualified for the tournament 44 times (second most all-time) and is one of only four schools with 2,000 or more victories.
The good news is Providence doesn’t have to contend with legendary coach Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, James Worthy or any of the mystique and aura from North Carolina’s storied history. The bad news is this year’s team is as good as any Williams has coached in the past 11 years with perhaps the exception of his national championship teams in 2005 and 2009.
The Tar Heels boast tremendous depth and a pair of elite scorers in sophomore guard Marcus Page (17.4 points per game) and junior forward James Michael McAdoo (14.2), but they lack a true low-post presence – McAdoo only averages 6.7 rebounds per game – and are one of North Carolina’s worst rebounding teams of the Williams’ era. The Tar Heels are also still reeling from their loss to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament, a disappointing finish for a team that won 12 consecutive games between January and March.
As a No. 11 seed, Providence has some history on its side. No. 11 seeds have won 40 first-round games against No. 6 seeds. Fifteen of those winners advanced to the Sweet 16 with five making it to the Elite 8 and three making it all the way to the Final Four, the most recent case occurring in 2011 when 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth beat Georgetown (6), Purdue (3), Florida State (10) and Kansas (1) en route to the national semifinals.
The Friars need more of the magic that lifted them past Creighton in the Big East Championship this past weekend. They need Bryce Cotton’s All-American season to continue. They need to stay out of foul trouble. They need a lot of things to go right tonight, but considering everything they’ve been through, and everything that’s happened in the Round of 64 up until this point, facing North Carolina doesn’t seem like such a tall task after all.
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