Friday, September 29

Big East Tournament: College basketball at its best, wackiest

By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist

NEW YORK — There was Big New England energy at the Big East Tournament on Thursday.

Providence College faced off against Butler University at noon, so an hour before, 33rd Street was packed with people wearing Friars sweatshirts and Red Sox hats. One man was yelling, “It’s the Friars’ time!” in a Rhode Island accent, which involves an inflection you can pinpoint as not a Boston accent only if you grew up close to Rhode Island.

Providence played its best season ever this year in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center (that’s the real name of the team’s arena). The Friars won the Big East conference and entered this week’s tournament as the No. 1 seed. Coach Ed Cooley was named Big East Coach of the Year on Wednesday, and point guard Jared Bynum took home the honors of Sixth Man of the Year.

The redshirt junior averaged 15.9 points off the bench, and he was once again instrumental Thursday in the Friars’ 65-61 win, with 16 points, three rebounds and one assist. But it was center Nate Watson who really went off. The senior put up a season-high 26 points, with seven rebounds and two assists, to propel Providence to the semifinals of the Big East.

Providence vs. Butler was a ping-pong game, with battles bouncing back and forth at each end of the court. The score was tied at 31 going into the second half, and it stayed that close until the final minute, when the score was knotted at 59. Providence’s Al Durham sank a go-ahead 3-pointer with 41 seconds left, and the 11- 2 Friars squeaked into the semis, where they’ll face Creighton on Friday.

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The game was thrilling, but it was really the … how do I put this … the college-ness of it all that made the contest so much fun. Do you know what I mean? College sports are, in my opinion, the greatest spectacle America offers. Sure, there’s a lot wrong with them, but there are few other communal experiences that connect people to their homes and loved ones the way school spirit does. There are also few events that are so wacky and make so little sense.

I felt this acutely at the Big East tournament because it marked the first time in two years that college basketball was at its full weirdness since the world shut down during the St. John’s-Creighton game in March 2020. Wednesday night at the Garden was moving . The vibe was celebratory and joyful; it felt like a relief.

But Thursday felt like a return to what makes college sports great: you’re living in Bizzarro Land, where in a very connected world, region still matters. The place was packed, and I had the privilege of speaking with Providence’s Friar Dom, a felt-skinned priest (well, friar) whom many consider the creepiest mascot in sports.

I’ve always wondered what it’s like to exist inside the mascot that has given us gifts such as this …

… so I was hoping to interview the student under the robes. But in all my years of reporting on pets, I have learned that they’re loath to give away the magic. The people inside the strange, lumpy, stuffed costumes much prefer to pretend there is no human in there at all.

Mascots do not speak, and the person behind the felt-skinned head would not take it off or use words. So, I had to interpret the Friar’s hand signals in order to communicate.

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I learned people are often scared of this creature, but he reels them in with high-fives and fist bumps. He’s very proud of the Friars, and he wants the fans to know he loves them. It was a lovely conversation, so I think it’s safe to say that while Friar Dom is creepy as hell, he’s definitely going to heaven.

Speaking of heaven — a place all dogs go — Butler Blue was also in the building. This adorable bulldog is the fourth live mascot Butler has stewarded through the world of college athletics. I was lucky enough to take his predecessor Butler Blue III, known as Trip, for a walk through Madison Square Park in 2018. Trip has since retired, and I’m pleased to report that the 2-year-old IV was just as sweet .

My point is that only in college sports can you watch a battle of teams that could be described as the “creepy vs. cute” game.

The stakes are high in March: If you lose, you go home, and teams lose until only one is left standing. For seniors, it’s the end of everything they’ve ever known if they aren’t going to the NBA. But even in defeat, there’s so much heart.

For example: The Butler band was led by the most dedicated director I’ve ever seen. He left too quickly after the loss for me to talk to him, so if anyone knows this man, please tell him that I’ve never seen anyone go so hard to “Seven Nation Army,” and it was a privilege to witness.

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After all, it might’ve been his seniors’ last game, too.

Even the Butler students sitting courtside, who heckled Bynum at the free-throw line, were somehow endearing, yelling typical college jabs such as “BRICK!” right before his release from him. The band was pretty good at harmless heckling, too, shouting “Nice shot, buddy!” and “Do it again!” after misses.

Toward the end of the game, MSG was absolutely packed. Friar Dom was holding his strange head in his hands de él or doing spirit fingers during free throws — he’s the rare mascot who might be able to bless a foul shot into the basket.

Fans sang along to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” for a Dance Cam break during a TV timeout. And I have to admit, I teared up.

There was something so freeing, so relieving, so human about a bunch of strangers singing the words in unison while a middle-aged woman in a Providence quarter-zip rolled her body on a screen the size of my living room.

Blue’s handler, Evan Krauss, probably put it best when he said, “It’s March in the Big East. What could be better?”

Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of “The People’s Sports Podcast“for FOX Sports. She’s honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.

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