Persistence Pays Off For Cooley and Musselman as Friars and Razorbacks March to Sweet Sixteen
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
By: Aidan Joly, Editor-In-Chief
As I watched Providence methodically dismantle Richmond 79-51 and Arkansas grind out a 53-48 win against New Mexico State on Saturday night at KeyBank Center as both programs advanced to the Sweet 16, one word came to mind.
The similarities between these two programs and head coaches are stark.
Let’s discuss Providence first. The Friars came into the week as a team that many thought would be victim to an upset on Thursday afternoon against South Dakota State, head coach Ed Cooley had the team knowing that not a lot of people picked them to win that game, in order to motivate them. This is something he spoke on in his pregame press conference on Wednesday.
Providence grinded it out with a 66-57 win on Thursday. Sure, it may have gotten a little luck overall that day, with some calls going its way and later on Richmond pulling off an upset against a red-hot Iowa team to set up Saturday’s matchup.
Saturday, like I said, was nothing short of total dominance. The Friars shot 12-22 from three-point range while holding Richmond to 1-22 in the same stat. It held star guard Jacob Gilyard to four points in what was his final collegiate game. It had five players score 10 or more points and had another with nine. It was led by Noah Horchler, who had 16 points and 14 rebounds. It’s worth noting that five players came to the postgame press conference: Horchler, Nate Watson, Al Durham, AJ Reeves and Jared Bynum. That speaks volumes about the team and the coaching staff.
Cooley, a Providence native himself, arrived at the school in 2011 with the goal of bringing the program back to national prominence. It had not been to the NCAA tournament since 2004 and had just fired Keno Davis after back-to-back dreadful seasons. By year three, Cooley had them back in the tournament. In year five, he won a game. It took him 11 years, but Cooley has Providence advancing to the second weekend for the first time since 1997. That was before the writer of this column was born. He did this through a winning mentality, persistence and patience. It worked.
Now it gets to face one of the sport’s bluebloods in Kansas, on Friday in Chicago. Can’t wait.
As for Arkansas. The Razorbacks were another popular upset pick on Thursday as it played Vermont, an NCAA tournament regular coming out of the America East. It was a close one, but Arkansas won 75-71. It came into Saturday playing another upset-minded team in New Mexico State, who had unexpectedly knocked off UConn late Thursday night. It looked to continue the run. Arkansas had a 13-point lead late in the first half that vanished within the first 10 minutes of the second half. Its star player, JD Notae, got in serious foul trouble in the second half and eventually fouled out with 1:18 to play. No fear. Enter Chris Lykes, a role-playing guard who made clutch free throws in the final minutes to secure the victory. All seven of his points came from the charity stripe.
Head coach Eric Musselman is in year three with the Razorbacks. He’s been everywhere; college head coach, college assistant, NBA head coach, NBA assistant, G-League, semi-pro, international. You name it, he’s coached it. He talked in his postgame press conference Saturday night about what it was like to prepare for guys like Allen Iverson and the late Kobe Bryant.
He took over an Arkansas program that had been on the national stage before, but had been middle of the road since the 1990’s. It won a national championship in 1994 and went to the Final Four three times between 1990-1995. Went to the Sweet 16 every year between 1993-1996. It can be done there. Last year, it went to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996. Now, Musselman has the program back there again with a chance to face Gonzaga, the tournament’s number one overall seed, on Thursday in San Francisco.