Where The Friars Stand After 12 Games

As a Friars fan, my goal every season is for the Friars to make the NCAA Tournament. It's a goal I've seen fulfilled just seven times since my earthly existence began...

As a Friars fan, my goal every season is for the Friars to make the NCAA Tournament. It's a goal I've seen fulfilled just seven times since my earthly existence began, and there was little reason to believe this Friars team would end a six-season drought and hear its name called on Selection Sunday in March. A trip to the Big Dance is still highly unlikely, but Providence's play during the six-game stretch that just ended at least makes the idea worthy of consideration in an article.

How good is PC compared to an NCAA Tournament team?

Let's start by looking at how good the Friars are relative to what it will probably take for them to make the NCAA Tournament. Based on the last five NCAA Tournaments, major-conference teams can expect to get about 80 percent of the potential at-large bids (81.2 percent to be exact). With 37 at-large bids for the first time this year, that works out to 30 at-larges to major-conference teams and 36 total bids, including the automatics. In other words, if PC is among the 36 best major-conference teams, it figures to have a pretty good shot at an NCAA Tournament bid.

Right now, according to my formula, which calculates how much better or worse a team has than the national average, Providence ranks 40th among the 73 major-conference teams at 14.4 points per 100 possessions above average. The Friars' offense ranks 31st and their defense ranks 51st. They are precisely two points/100 worse than the team that ranks 36th -- Cincinnati.

A two-point-per-100-possession improvement would be large but achievable, especially when you consider the team's improvement since returning from Cancun.

Offense Defense Total
First Six Games 1.6 7.9 6.9
Last Six Games 18.5 6.1 21.9

As the table above shows, the Friars offense has made remarkable improvements that have contributed to large overall improvements. The Friars' first-six mark of 6.9 points/100 above average is similar to how a team like Arkansas or Oregon has played for the entire season, whereas the last-six 21.9 points/100 is similar to how a team like Washington State or Notre Dame has played this season. That's the difference between a team that has no realistic hope of making the NCAA Tournament and a team that has played to the level of a borderline top-25 team to date -- a huge spread.

PC's five worst offensive games, when one adjusts for the opposition, were the first five games of the season. The emergence of Marshon Brooks as an efficient go-to guy as well as increased offensive contributions from Duke Mondy and Kadeem Batts are the primary personnel reasons for the improvement.

Eff eFG% TO% OffReb% FTR OppDef
First Six 104.5 48.2 18.1 37.9 47.7 102.8
Last Six 117.9 52.1 18.1 44.7 37.4 99.6

Despite the quality of the opposition improving (as indicated by the OppDef column), the Friars have shot the ball better and done an even better job of pounding the opposition on the boards than they had in their first six games. PC has been no more likely to turn the ball over, and, though the free-throw rate has declined, PC got to the line a ton in the games against the best competition -- Rhode Island (34 free-throw attempts), Boston College (29) and Alabama (31).

It may not seem like it, but PC's offense has actually been borderline elite since the team returned from Cancun. The 18.5 points per 100 possessions better than average over that span is the level of a top-15 offense. The truth about the Friars likely lay somewhere between the poor offense to begin the season and the stronger play of late, but I'd shade more toward the latter, because it has 1) come more recently and 2) come against stronger competition.

As the offense has improved, the defense has been more stagnant. PC's three best defensive performances, adjusted for the competition, remain its first three games. The last six games have seen subpar defensive performances in a narrow victory over Northeastern and the two-point loss to Boston College.

Eff eFG% TO% OffReb% FTR OppDef
First Six 88.3 41.7 20.5 32.2 29.9 96.2
Last Six 97.0 48.8 19.9 29.8 24.6 103.2

That last column is again significant. The offenses facing PC in the last six games have been about seven points/100 better on average than those the Friars faced in the first six games, and those offenses have scored 8.7 more points/100 than the first six opponents did.

The good news is that, despite the improved competition, PC has forced just slightly fewer turnovers and done a better job keeping opponents off the line and hitting the defensive glass than in the first six games. The rebounding numbers are particularly noteworthy since the Friars were the worst defensive rebounding team in the Big East last season, allowing opponents to get back their misses 39.5 percent of the time. Bilal Dixon and Brooks are more than holding their own on the defensive glass, and Vincent Council is chipping in well from the backcourt, so it does appear that the Friars will at least be adequate on the defensive glass, especially relative to last season.

The one place where opposition improvements have been drastic is in their shooting:

eFG 2PT% 3PT%
First Six 41.4% 42.0% 26.6%
Last Six 48.5% 48.0% 33.1%

The shooting numbers Providence was holding teams to through four games were unsustainable, and Rhode Island, Brown and Northeastern each hitting at least nine 3-pointers against the Friars proved as much. More disconcerting, though, is the 2-point percentage, as four of the last six opponents have hit at least 48 percent of their 2-pointers. The athletic Crimson Tide (48.1 percent on 2-pointers) and the efficient Eagles (52.9) did plenty of interior damage to the Friars, but Central Connecticut (51.3) and Northeastern (48.9) also found the mark often on 2-pointers, the one stat best correlated to long-term defensive success.

That those figures are some of the worst allowed by the Friars defense this season at least means that the 2-point defense shouldn't be among the worst in the country, as it was last season, but I do expect quality opponents -- in other words, most of the rest of the schedule -- to find the inside permissive. Dixon can't do it on his own, and Brooks is a good shot-blocker for his size but still quite undersized. None of the Friars' other frontcourt options -- Batts, Ron Giplaye, Ray Hall, Lee Goldsbrough -- figure to offer much to supplement what Dixon and Brooks are doing. PC's ability to limit interior exploitation will determine whether the Friars defense is good enough to keep it in games against Big East opponents.

Keno Era comparisons

I'm going to end this section by comparing this team's start to the previous two Keno Davis clubs.

First 12
Remainder
Off Def Total Off Def Total
2008-09 6.7 5.6 10.0 11.2 1.6 12.6
2009-10 12.2 0.3 10.5 14.4 -5.3 9.1
2010-11 10.1 7.0 14.4 ? ? ?

First, I should note that the first 12 games represent the entire non-conference schedule for the last two teams. This team still has one more non-conference game -- Tuesday vs. Sacred Heart.

This is not a significant sample, but the table shows us a few things. The first is that this is the best start a Keno Davis team has had in his three seasons. The Friars are 4.4 points/100 better than the team that came within a win of the NCAA Tournament in 2009. That team improved during the conference season by 2.6 points en route to 11 league wins (including the Big East Tournament), whereas last year's team got 1.4 points worse en route to a season-ending 11-game losing streak.

The second thing that we see is that the offense has gotten better and the defense has gotten worse during conference play. The Friars' 2008-09 defense went from poor for a Big East team to quite bad. Last year's defense went from quite bad to functionally non-existent. With different pieces this season, Davis has to hope that his defense this year -- the best he's shown at PC -- will hold up better than his previous ones have under the glare of the bright Big East lights.

The final takeaway is that what PC was through 12 games is a pretty representative of how it would be. The 2.6 points/100 improvement and 1.4 points/100 decline are no more than a 5-8 spot difference in the overall major-conference rankings, meaning with just a little wiggle room, what you have seen over the course of the last six weeks is probably what you're going get for the next three months.

What will it take to Dance?

It's one thing to consider whether Providence is good enough or could become good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but there's a difference between playing well enough for inclusion and putting together a profile that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee deems worthy of inclusion.

Much of the Selection Committee's decisions revolve around the RPI. Even if the raw number is not something the committee admits it considers, that figure informs much of the rest of the data that the committee does factor in. Statistical study has shown that the RPI cutoff line between a team being likely to make the field with an at-large bid and being unlikely is 45. Factor in the extra three at-large bids this year, and getting in the top 48 should be the goal for any team trying to squeak into the field.

Though it's still too early to be anything close to certain, RPIForecast.com gives us a pretty good idea of what record the Friars would need to get an RPI in the top 48. RPIForecast.com projects the Friars to have an RPI at about 47 with a 21-10 record. Assuming a win over Sacred Heart, PC must go 10-8 in conference to get to 21 wins. That's a high standard partly due to the weak non-conference schedule and partly due to the projected weak conference schedule with four games against Rutgers and South Florida.

Based on Kenpom.com projections, here are the conference games ranked from most to least likely:

Rank Date Opponent Win%
1 Feb. 17 DePaul 95
2 Feb. 2 South Florida 85
3 Mar. 5 Rutgers 82
4 Jan. 1 St. John's 67
5 Jan. 16 at South Florida 62
6 Feb. 19 Cincinnati 61
7 Feb. 23 Notre Dame 56
8 Jan. 8 at Rutgers 55
9 Jan. 26 Villanova 44
10 Jan. 22 Louisville 34
11 Jan. 30 at Seton Hall 29
t12 Jan. 4 Pittsburgh 23
t12 Feb. 27 at Marquette 23
14 Feb. 13 at Connecticut 20
15 Jan. 13 at West Virginia 16
t16 Dec. 28 at Syracuse 12
t16 Feb. 5 at Georgetown 12
t16 Mar. 2 at Louisville 12

A 10-8 league record would probably put the Friars at a No. 7 or No. 8 seed in the Big East Tournament, and I suspect PC would need a win in its first-round Big East Tournament game - against the No. 10 or No. 9 seed -- to ensure a bid. The at-large cut line is always a moving target, especially when we have no idea how mid-major conference tournaments will break, but 22 wins in a strong Big East would be a strong case for the Selection Committee to consider.

Kenpom.com has the Friars winning exactly 21 regular-season games about 11 percent of the time and more than 21 regular-season games about eight percent of the time. If you consider the first-round Big East Tournament game a tossup, then PC wins its 22nd in the Big East Tournament about six percent of the time (rounding up for the rare occasions that a 19- or 20-win Friars team goes on a deep run at MSG). That puts PC at 14 percent (or about one in seven) to make the NCAAs based on what I think it will take combined with what Kenpom.com says is likely.

Keep in mind, though, that Kenpom.com's projections are based on the notion that PC is exactly as good as it has been this season. As we have seen with Davis' past teams, the Friars could make improvements or regressions during the conference season, and any improvement would, of course, make it more likely that the Friars make the NCAAs.

Still, I think most Friars fans would have taken a one-in-seven shot at making the NCAA Tournament -- with room for improvement -- in October.


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