Now 16-12 and 8-8 in Big East with a chance to finish in top half of conference standings, Providence's Ed Cooley is a Coach of the Year contender, and deservedly so. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)
My mentor and colleague Bob Heussler once told me in regard to conference Coach of the Year races that the award should, in theory, be presented to the coach who "did the most with what was perceived to be the least." Usually, this belief holds true in most circles, but in a conference where all the buzz is over perennial upper-echelon program Georgetown and Wooden Award candidate Otto Porter, the Coach of the Year favorite is Hoyas boss John Thompson III despite his residence in a Big East coaching fraternity where several other coaches have done more with their programs and exceeded greater expectations, particularly the man in charge of the team picked to finish last when the preseason poll was released in October.
Since his arrival in his hometown of Providence two years ago, what Ed Cooley has done in his short tenure at the helm of the Friars has been nothing short of brilliant. Currently 16-12 and 8-8 in the Big East after Providence's 62-59 win over St. John's last night, Cooley has his program squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble for the first time since Tim Welsh piloted the Ocean State's flagship basketball program in the mid-2000s, and has Providence firmly positioned for long-term Big East success, something the Friar fan base has not seen since the days of Welsh and his predecessor Pete Gillen.
Nearly everyone had major question marks surrounding the Friars going into the season, with doubts on how Cooley would manage his roster with highly touted freshman Kris Dunn out for the first half of the year, not to mention eligibility issues surrounding fellow five-star recruit Ricky Ledo and Arizona transfer Sidiki Johnson, who joined the team in December. To top it all off, all-Big East point guard Vincent Council battled injuries in November and December as Providence dropped close games to Massachusetts, Penn State, Boston College and Brown, schools they may have very well defeated with Council in the lineup. Yet after falling to 10-11 overall after an overtime defeat at the hands of Connecticut, who the Friars again face this Saturday at Gampel Pavilion, Cooley has turned it around with wins in six of his last seven games; including three against likely NCAA Tournament participants Villanova, Cincinnati and Notre Dame, with the emergence of rising star and Big East leading scorer Bryce Cotton anchoring a Providence backcourt that now has a healthy Council and Dunn to set up LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts up front while freshman Josh Fortune anchors a bench that is gradually developing in its own right.
In addition to Cooley, Buzz Williams of Marquette and Villanova's Jay Wright have also done more with their respective programs than some may have envisioned at the start of the season, taking teams that were predicted to finish in the middle of the road and getting them into the top four (Marquette) or earning two wins over Top 5 teams like Villanova did. Even though Georgetown has been on an impressive roll that could earn them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament depending on what happens in the Big East Tournament and Porter's dominance is far and away the greatest story of all the players in the conference, there is just something to be said about a team that has won less than fifteen Big East games in the three seasons prior to this one and taking it from the depths of mediocrity under Keno Davis to a legitimate contender that teams do not want to face.
Bob Heussler also told me Ed Cooley was "not a good guy," but a "great guy" when Providence hired him from Fairfield. It may have taken two years for the world to find out the same, but Cooley is not just a great guy, he's also a great coach who needs to be rewarded for the work he has done. Anything less will be a travesty.