By Jake Zimmer
PROVIDENCE- We all know how dismal Providence College’s start to the season was. Between a surprising early loss to Northwestern, an 0-2 Thanksgiving trip to California (Long Beach State and Charleston were the victors), and a 14-point loss to in-state rival Rhode Island, things looked bleak for the Friars.
As if it couldn’t get worse, on December 17th, the Friars were suffocated by the Florida Gators in 83-51 fashion at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Fans panicked, writers began to question the Friar talent, and team morale was at an all-time low. And, who can forget the mystery Friars fan near the bench, screaming out to head coach Ed Cooley…“Hey, Ed! This is embarrassing!”
To which he replied, “Yeah, I know,” nodding his head in agreement.
Just last week, things were looking up for the Friars. They had played opponents to a 7-4 record since their loss against Florida; 6 of those wins came against BIG EAST opponents, and two of them – their last two games in #16 Butler and #21 Creighton – were among the top-fifteen teams in the country, according to NET rankings. It’s almost as if a different team – the team picked to finish 4th in the preseason BIG EAST rankings – had come into its own.
How, you ask? Shots were finally going in; a blessing for a team that only made 45.1% of their two-point attempts, which ranked 28th-worst in Division I. Defense continued to be a force; the Friars’ defensive efficiency ranked 40th-best in the nation. Rebounds have been – and continue to be – a strength for Providence; now that junior forward Nate Watson is at full-strength, he has had glimpses of pure greatness, complementing a relatively veteran paint presence to become an impenetrable wall.
Many credited Ed Cooley with the team’s turnaround; after all, it’s natural to acclaim the man at the helm when things are falling into place. Fans, and the media, loved his message in turbulent times. Through the dreadful performances that Providence endured, Cooley maintained the same, forward-looking message. After that December 17th trouncing by Florida, the Friars turned it around against then-#21 Texas with a 70-48 exhibit of their own. It was then and there that we truly understood how Ed Cooley was going to approach the beginning of conference play.
DECEMBER 21, 2019 – Postgame Press Conference, Dunkin Donuts Center
Media member: “Shaka (Smart, Texas coach) just came in here and said you played with desperation today. Is that accurate? Is that how you saw your effort?”
Ed Cooley: “That’s a great question. I thought we had a great amount of urgency. For a lot of the season, we haven’t been the team we want to be. But we’re making sure we’re staying with the process – we will continue to talk about what we can be, and what we will be, versus what we weren’t. I think you have to have a positive approach when you’re struggling. You have to give your men incredible security and confidence that we are a good team.”
Then, the wins came. Dominant performances against Georgetown, St. John’s, and Creighton. Hard-fought victories against DePaul, Marquette, and Butler. Near-wins against the Jays and Villanova. Fans, journalists, and analysts loved the low-post game that Ed Cooley had tried to implement. The frontcourt had never looked so polished, and had virtually become the most well-oiled of machines. Because of the attention the big-men warranted, it yielded quality opportunities for the shoot-first guards – Luwane Pipkins, Maliek White, and AJ Reeves.
We started to believe that this team could climb their way out. Things looked good.
And then, they didn’t.
Just a week-and-a-half after a 73-56 win against Creighton, there’s been a massive shift in the outlook for the Friars’ ability to compete in March & beyond. After taking a 2-point lead into the locker room at half last Saturday, the Friars were exposed by the Xavier Musketeers in the latter 20 minutes of the game, falling 64-58.
Providence then looked to a Wednesday evening matchup at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, where they tried to take down a St. John’s team which they held to 58 points a few weeks ago. The Friars surely had a bounceback win in them, right?
Oops…we jumped the gun.
The frontcourt of Kalif Young, Greg Gantt, and Nate Watson – the same frontcourt that was acclaimed for its prowess in the paint mere games ago – was held to an atrocious 14 points between the three of them. While their shots fell, the Friar defense lost its identity against a St. John’s team who has always had something to prove.
Many thought that if Providence won the remainder of their games, they might have been able to sneak away with an at-large bid, even if they fell in the BIG EAST semifinal or championship game.
But now, with a 13-12 record and a dead-even 6-6 in conference play, there’s now no question about it.
There is only one thing that can save the Friars. It’s the BIG EAST title.
Let’s take a look at the remainder of the Providence schedule and the Friars’ win probabilities, as brought to you by KenPom.com.
Tonight against #10 Seton Hall will mark possibly the biggest remaining test for Providence. It’s no secret that no one really expects the Friars to win; including both Las Vegas (spreads appear to be closing at Seton Hall -2) and advanced analytical metrics you see above. While the Friars are 2-5 in their last 7 meetings against the Pirates, they’ve consistently been able to give Seton Hall a hard time in terms of scoring margin. Their past 2 losses to the Pirates have come by an average of 5.5 per game, which is a nice feather-in-the-cap considering the misery other BIG EAST counterparts have had lately against Seton Hall.
Georgetown, Marquette, and DePaul are all teams the Friars have beat this year. But the issues facing each team have – for the mostpart – evaded them. Let’s take a look:
- Georgetown: Pains with being thin-as-ice off the bench have subsided. Omer Yurtseven has evolved into a nice frontcourt asset for pass-first guard and offensive ringleader Mac McClung.
- Marquette: We’ve learned that there are, indeed, other pieces around Markus Howard. That’s all.
- DePaul: While the Demons have fallen off to a 1-10 BIG EAST record, every game has been close and they have lots of talent. They’ve also got a win against Butler, ranked #5 at the time.
As for Xavier and Villanova, we know all-too-well of the heartbreaking losses the Friars endured. Somehow, holding the ‘Cats to 64 wasn’t good enough for them to steal a win at the Dunk. Getting a victory in Philly will be nearly impossible.
So, with a bleak outlook – highlighted by a 16-15 expected record, and 9-9 in conference play – the only way to salvage the season is to catch a few lucky breaks and try to find a more talented team on an off-night.
In no way is this a call for the Friars to throw in the towel and wait until the second week of March. From here out, every game they play has the chance to be a team that stands in their way of capturing the hardware – and, as such, will essentially have playoff implications.
Our minds are jogging to Ed Cooley’s comments after their Florida loss. “There’s no question we have a long ways to go with our group,” he proclaimed. “I thought we got frustrated when the ball wasn’t going in the basket. Whether it was free throws, layups, wide open shots, you’re going to have days like this. The compound effect looks worse than it actually is.”
Well, we’re two months past this comment…our hearts have been torn, rebroken, and torn again. We’ll find out how badly this “compound effect” Cooley speaks of has broken the Providence Friars.