Ed Cooley leads Providence into an NCAA Tournament second-round game against North Carolina on Saturday night. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)

Friendships set aside as Friars prep for Tar Heels

March 18, 2016 - 4:22 pm
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Certainly Ed Cooley has as much respect for North Carolina's Roy Williams as he has for any coach in the business. Williams, inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, deserves as much. But when Cooley tells you he's "friends" with the Hall of Famer, he means it. And so does Williams, who likewise expresses his fondness for Cooley. The two have their mutual admiration society friendship, and perhaps a couple of other things on the line Saturday night (9:50 p.m. tip-off, 9:15 broadcast on 103.7 WEEI-FM) when the Friars face the top-seeded Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament's second round at PNC Arena. "Eddie is a good friend. He's a good guy," Williams said Friday afternoon, with his team preparing for Providence. "I enjoy him. But he's probably the worst I've ever seen in my life in a yoga class. Other than that, he's a good friend and we enjoy each other. Ask Eddie about the yoga class." Naturally, we took the bait. "Wow, that's funny," was Cooley's reply. "We were in Hawaii together on a Nike trip and my wife asked me to take yoga for the first time in my life. At that point, I was about 370 pounds. I'll never try it again. I am the worst yoga participant in the history of that exercise. And Coach [Williams] lets me know about it every time he sees me. That's funny." All kidding aside, each knows he and his team have their hands full in trying to stop or slow down the other. For Providence, you can add a nearly full house of hometown fans on hand as well, with UNC's Chapel Hill campus a mere 20 minutes away. For a second straight year, the Friars face a virtual home-court disadvantage at a neutral site. "It's a great challenge," Cooley said. "We've played in tough venues before, we've played in front of 15,000-20,000 people. But now, it's just you're playing for bigger stakes. You don't complain about it, you just try to maximize the opportunity." The Friars also face an impressive Tar Heels front court, led by 6-foot-10 All-American Brice Johnson, who averages a double double (16.5 points, 10 rebounds) per game, and a former All-America guard who's still one of the best in the college game in Marcus Paige. Both players were sophomores when North Carolina held off PC's Bryce Cotton in a 79-77 win two years ago in San Antonio. "They have great athleticism, great coaching. They're a veteran team," Cooley said. "Paige, we played against him a couple of years ago. Johnson was in the game. [Kennedy] Meeks, by the way, looks great. We have to stay as fresh as we can. That's what makes them so elite and one of the favorites to win the tournament." Neither coach was particularly thrilled with the late start time Saturday night, dictated by the NCAA and its television partners. But one was more vocal than the other when asked about the tip time. "Jiminy Christmas, you know, what can you say?" Williams said. "You know, it's like spitting in the wind, it's stupid because you can't do anything about it. But I despise it." Said Cooley: "Hey, man, when you're in the tournament, we can play at any time. We're excited; 9:50, if that's the time the ball goes up, let's hoop." Williams and Cooley have had similar health issues recently that have provided a few nervous moments for family, friends and fans, as both have dealt with vertigo problems. Williams even reached out to Cooley as Cooley battled his dizziness earlier this season, with suggestions for medications and recovery tactics. While the friendship between Cooley and Williams is apparent away from the court, once the two teams "hoop" Saturday night their relationship will be business only, so the two will pick things up afterward. Or, perhaps they'll wait until the next yoga class. NOTES North Carolina features a deep and multi-talented roster that goes eight players deep, featuring the aforementioned Johnson, Paige and Meeks, along with the ACC Tournament MVP  guard Joel Berry and talented wing Justin Jackson. Length is not lost on the Tar Heels, with one of the top rebounding margins in the country, and the regular-season and tournament champs led the ACC in that category. One thing the Tar Heels do not do particularly well, despite the shooting abilities of Paige and Berry, is shoot the trey. UNC is third to last among NCAA Tournament teams in 3-point field goal percentage at 31 percent, and the Friars have defended the 3 (the USC game notwithstanding) well all season -- leading the Big East in the category. The game will be the fifth all-time matchup between the two schools, with UNC holding a 3-1 edge overall. The Heels won 79-77 in San Antonio two years ago during the NCAA's opening round, despite a 36-point performance from Bryce Cotton. The only PC win came in 1978, a 61-51 victory at the then-Providence Civic Center. The last time the Friars played in the Round of 32? In 1997, when they defeated second-seeded Duke 98-87 to advance to the Sweet 16. Coincidentally, that game also was held in North Carolina (Charlotte). At 24-10 on the season, Providence has matched its highest win total since that '97 season. With a win over the Tar Heels, 25 victories would give the Friars their most wins since the 1987 team reached the Final Four and finished 25-9 overall. In case the game gets close, as it did at the end against USC, there's a reason for the Friars' confidence. PC is 9-1 on the season when a game is decided by four points or less.