Providence dreaming big while embracing coach Kim English’s toughness

Jayden Pierre knew what kind of message Kim English was trying to send to his team the moment he heard the whistle get blown for a technical foul. 

“That was his way of telling us to wake up,” Pierre said.

Less than six minutes into the Big East Tournament quarterfinal matchup between 7-seeded Providence and 2-seeded Creighton on Thursday evening, a questionable foul call on Devin Carter prompted English to stomp on the floor, drop an f-bomb, and let the officiating crew know what he thought about the call. 

The technical got whistled, leading to five straight points by the Bluejays to make it a 13-6 game. 

English’s message worked. In the ensuing 10 minutes, Providence locked down Creighton’s top-15 offense, sparking a 25-9 run capped off by a Pierre jumper. 

The eighth-ranked Bluejays weren’t going to go down easily, even overcoming a 13-point second-half deficit to grab the lead with just over five minutes on the clock. However, on Thursday night, inside the World’s Most Famous Arena, the Friars were the tougher, more desperate team down the stretch. They outscored Creighton 15-9 in the final minutes to pull out a 78-73 win, a sixth Quad 1 victory that could end up in Providence hearing its name called on Selection Sunday. 

Maybe Kim English’s team wins without the technical foul. Maybe they don’t. But it symbolized the edginess of the thousands that came from Friartown to MSG to root on Providence. It showed the fire of English, the youngest high-major head coach in college basketball at the age of 35, who looks like he could have gone back on the court to play for the Friars on Thursday night. He knows what it takes to win these things, having been named the 2012 Big 12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player while at Missouri before getting drafted by the Detroit Pistons. 

English’s players reflected that energy, and in doing so, showed that their first-year head coach has firmly stamped his presence with this Providence program on the “gets us” meter. 

Providence Friars vs. Creighton Bluejays Big East Tournament Highlights

Providence Friars vs. Creighton Bluejays Big East Tournament Highlights

But English is more than just a fiery character on the sidelines. He’s extremely analytical, bringing a white sheet of paper with several numbers that go beyond a box score to his press conference. He is also very inquisitive, and that’s exactly why he decided to call upon seven-time Big East Tournament champion and three-time national champion Jim Calhoun this week. 

A Providence coach calling upon a UConn legend? Yes, it happened. 

But Calhoun, who is at The Garden this week working as a TV analyst for the Big East Digital Network, told English the very words the Friars head coach used in his postgame speech after Thursday’s win. 

“I got to talk to Jim Calhoun yesterday a few times, and those guys are so wise, and I just reiterated his words to our team,” English said. “We got 40 minutes. Ups and downs all season, adverse conditions, less than ideal. Mindset and moments, bad shots, bad plays, bad turnovers, bad responses. We got 40 minutes to be our most locked-in selves. And [that was] one of our group’s best efforts of the season.” 

For English’s Friars to be sitting at 21-12 overall and in the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation, despite losing Bryce Hopkins in January to a torn ACL, speaks to the team’s resiliency and toughness.

“We’re tough. You have to be,” said English, who is the first Providence head coach in program history to win 20 or more games in his first season. “I talked about it yesterday. We talked about if you’re not prepared in this league, focused, it’s like a cannonball going through your chest. If you’re not tough in this league, I mean, don’t even put … don’t even field a team. So we’re tough. We’ve been tough. You have to be tough to play in this conference.” 

Nobody has embodied that more than Carter, the Big East Player of the Year, who posted 22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and a nasty block in the team’s win over Creighton.

“It was Michael Jordan-esque,” English said of the rejection. “Weak side, help block down low, great play. Started with the wall up. All our guys make plays after plays, especially Devin.” 

If not for Carter and post man Josh Oduro, who put up 17 points and nine rebounds, this Friars team wouldn’t be discussed in the committee room. 

“It was a must-win game,” Carter. said “We want to keep our tournament dreams alive, and we also want to get a Big East championship. So we knew coming into the game that we had another 40 minutes. And that was just the mindset.” 

That very mindset is what has Providence as the first 7-seed in the Big East Tournament in seven years to reach the semifinals, and what earned them 40 more minutes on Friday night to keep convincing the selection committee that they belong in the Big Dance.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him at @John_Fanta.

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