SAN ANTONIO — Let’s remove all the tradition and corresponding subplots from the equation.
Instead, let’s delve into how Providence and North Carolina arrived at this particular juncture – a second-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament that’s on tap Friday night (7:20 tip) at the AT&T Center. The two schools may have arrived at the same destination, yet it’s safe to say that the steps taken to get here were vastly different.
Carolina, well, is Carolina – a tradition-rich program that features a Hall of Fame coach and a boatload of prized recruits. Compare and contrast that with Providence. There’s a build-your-way-up vibe that was explained by the head preacher who doubles as the Friars’ head coach.
Simply stated, it’s been a joy for Ed Cooley to coach this particular group. That’s saying something considering he probably leads all of college basketball in trying circumstances this season. Then there’s Tar Heels mentor Roy Williams, who spoke Thursday about getting his Carolina players to play with more passion.
“If you don’t have a sense of urgency, there is a great chance that you still may not win, but you have no chance if you don’t,” Williams explained.
To hear the coach from one of the most revered and storied programs in the country speak about desire is a telling sign of what kind of ride it’s been for UNC. The Tar Heels started the year ranked 12th in the national polls and at one point rattled off 12 straight wins against ACC opponents.
That may give off the vibe that everything was kosher in Chapel Hill, but that wasn’t always the case for Williams & Co. The urgency that the coach referenced was there when North Carolina bopped off marquee names Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky.
“We didn’t have it in several games,” noted Williams, indirectly referencing UNC’s puzzling losses to Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham.
As much frustration Cooley and the Friars have had to overcome, Williams had to deal with an entirely different breed of frustration – that of getting talented players such as Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo on the same page.
However, his Tar Heels were not a difficult group to lead. Far from it, in fact.
“A frustrating group to coach? Oh my gosh, no. All the (expletive) around it has been frustrating, but it’s been a marvelous group,” said Williams. “If it hadn’t been for my team, I would have jumped off the top of the building. My team is the one that was the savior throughout the whole season.
“My group of kids? I wouldn’t trade them for winning the lottery,” continued Williams, a statement that says something considering he’s guided two Carolina clubs to national titles. “During the game I get frustrated at them like you do your children, but this (2013-13 UNC edition) has not been a frustrating team.”
Unlike Williams, Cooley’s bouts with frustration have strictly come off the court. From watching Kris Dunn go down with a season-ending shoulder injury to the developments surrounding suspended freshmen Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock to his East Greenwich home catching fire, it’s been a cornucopia of troubling developments.
One would think that all the misfortunes would have sunk the Friars to the bottom of Narragansett Bay. A Big East Championship and a spot in the NCAA Tournament seemed more like a pipedream than actually coming to fruition.
In his private moments, Cooley probably got down on his hands and knees and thought about just how far Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts have come in three short years. Both PC seniors may have been holdovers from the Keno Davis era, yet both came of age under Cooley’s stewardship and guiding hand.
If Cotton and Batts didn’t take significant steps of growth, the theme of Providence’s season would have been one strictly coded in frustration.
“The more I trusted them and the more they’ve trusted us as a staff, I think the more success that we’ve had. That’s been the fun part. I feel like a proud father with these young kids,” said Cooley. “Our players have had a tough year with injuries and a condensed lineup, but they’ve bought into this whole heart and soul of what drives us every day. They have this mentality of just playing to win, playing to have fun and playing with a purpose.”
Added junior LaDontae Henton, “When I first got here, guys didn’t really buy in. To see guys really bought in and want to win now more than anything else, it’s just great to see how we’ve matured together and became brothers.”
As Henton sat at his locker stall prior to Thursday’s practice session on the home floor of the San Antonio Spurs, he was asked to reflect on one of the differences between the Friars and the Tar Heels. In Carolina’s case, trying to get a wave of talent on the same page can be a painstaking process that may take months to figure out.
“We’ve had a roller coaster of a season, dropping some games that we feel like we should have won and then winning some games that everyone besides ourselves thought we were probably going to lose,” said UNC’s McAdoo, a junior forward.
In Providence’s case, the egos are immediately checked at the door.
“Everyone plays off of each other and knows their roles,” Henton stated. “We’ve really bonded and I’m just happy to have this group.”
Starting from ground zero, “is the best,” Henton continued. “We know what needs to get done and play as a tight-knit group.”
The difference between Providence and North Carolina has nothing to do with one squad being a No. 6 seed in the East Regional while the other one is seeded 11th. It has nothing to do with how many players have gone on to play professionally or how many national championships are in the trophy case.
While the frustration levels might have been polar opposites, the end result – at least until the final score Friday night – proved the same for both. Call it the common denominator and a reminder that pulling up to the final destination is the equivalent of keeping score – it’s the only item that truly counts.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03