Without the NCAAs looming over each and every result, focus returns to the thing Friars fans said they entered the season most concerned with -- on-court improvement. The good news is that PC is clearly better. The Friars were the 14th best team in the Big East last season, and they are probably the league's 12th best team right now. Modest improvement, for sure, but real improvement nonetheless.
Here's a chart of the 16 Big East teams with offensive and defense Points/100 compared to national average, overall Points/100 compared to national average and Points/100 with added weighting for more recent games. The teams are ranked by latter figure.
Here's how PC's numbers compared through 15 games last season:
You asked for improvement, and there it is. The Friars have traded slightly worse offense for much better defense, and the adjusted figure indicates that the team has played better as the season has gone along, which is the opposite of last season. The problem is that, though fans asked for improvement, we fans are a greedy lot. We've been tantalized by potential, and now we're experiencing the cold hard facts of a Big East Conference that is unforgiving. This league is better than it was last season -- it's probably the second best in the country behind the Big Ten -- and there are major conferences out there (hello, SEC and Pac-10) where 13 Points/100 above average would be good enough to be in or near the top half of the conference.
In the Big East, though, a mark of 13 Points/100 is just good enough to avoid the league's bottom quartile. After all, a Connecticut team once ranked in the top six nationally with wins over Kentucky and Michigan State is, at least according to my numbers, not among the conference's best eight teams right now. Kenpom.com, incidentally, agrees.
As long as Friars fans are content with enjoying a clearly improved team try to get better rather than becoming hung up in the unforgiving "W" or "L", this season could be a lot of fun. If not, expect great gnashing of teeth. For one reason, the home/road split doesn't set up well for Providence to pick up many conference wins.
Entering the season, it appeared that home games against Notre Dame and Cincinnati were very winnable. They still are, but it would be better to face teams like Seton Hall, Marquette, Connecticut and West Virginia at home. These are teams that the Friars would be even money with at home, or -- in the case of Seton Hall -- fairly significant favorites. Instead, Kenpom.com puts PC at 17-24 percent to win any of those latter three games (PC is at 37 percent against SHU). Meanwhile, the Friars are at just 43 percent to defeat Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Those numbers will definitely fluctuate, but they're worth noting.
Because of the team's youth and the difficult schedule, I recommend we get away from the results business at least in the macro -- wins and losses -- and focus on the micro -- improved possession-by-possession data. In the last seven games (starting with the win over Rhode Island), PC has been an average of 16.9 Points/100 better than the national average, including five of seven games in which PC was at least 20 Points/100 better than the national average. The 20-point barrier is the mark of an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, but, unfortunately, the Friars are only 4-3 in that stretch, including a pair of two-point losses and a single-digit loss at one of the best teams in the country.
With a different mix of opponents or luckier distribution of points, PC could be in great shape entering the Pitt game, but as it stands, the Friars are currently a postseason afterthought. And this is why I ask the Friars fanbase to keep its gaze focused on the big picture. The team has improved -- let's see it improve more, even if that improvement isn't always manifested in wins and losses.
The offense is not as explosive as it was last season but still good enough to score the third most points per possession the Syracuse defense has allowed all season. The defense is still in the bottom quarter in the conference, but the improvements have been enough to hold St. John's to its third fewest points per possession of the season. The difficult part for a young team is being consistent at both ends of the floor and putting together a complete game. Then there's finishing a game. Those will be the next steps.
Numbers of note:
56 percent: For all the justified talk of improved defense, the Friars allowed both Syracuse and St. John's to shoot at least 56 percent in effective field-goal percentage. Last season, PC finished dead last in Big East games by allowing a 56 percent eFG. The Friars were able to hold SJU's offense in check despite the good shooting because of terrific defensive rebounding, some forced turnovers and preventing the Red Storm from getting to the line. Continuing to permit opponents to shoot that well, however, is begging defensive disaster.
35 percent: After failing to capture at least 35 percent of its own misses in only two games before the Big East season (vs. LaSalle and Yale), the Friars didn't hit that mark in either of their first two Big East games, grabbing 30.1 percent at Syracuse and just 24.2 percent vs. St. John's. Without a team full of good shooters or efficient low-post players, the Friars' offense has been built on good offensive rebounding for a season and a half, but expect the offense to suffer if some combination of Bilal Dixon, Kadeem Batts and Ron Giplaye can't fill Greedy Peterson's shoes against the improved competition.Giplaye had two of PC's eight offensive rebounds in the St. John's game on a single possession in the first half but missed three layups on that same possession, and the Friars failed to score.
71: That's the number of minutes that the Friars have gotten from their bench in the first two Big East Conference games combined (bench refers not to the players who don't start but rather to the players who are not among the team's top five minutes earners in a given game). Keno Davis' bench is dangerously short at the start of a brutal conference schedule. Vincent Council hasn't seen a minute of bench time in the last two games, and continuing this trend for Council and the rest of the Friars' horses -- which also includes Marshon Brooks and Gerard Coleman -- is bound to lead to injury or performance regression. Is Davis willing to spot players outside of the team's top seven to give those guys a blow? Would that help in the long run? The answer to the first question so far is no; the answer to the second question is unknowable. Only Notre Dame and Villanova have gotten fewer minutes from their benches among Big East teams this season.
As of games through Jan. 2