Friars Face Tough Tests On The Road

The Southern game Tuesday night at the Dunk should have sobered up those Friars fans giddy after a 3-0 start. Yes, PC is 4-0, but that was a wretched performance that gives perspective as Providence heads to South Padre Island, Texas.

This is a squad deficient in many phases but one that has benefited from playing a weak schedule and having its best performance -- by far -- against its best opponent, Fairfield. There's something to be said for playing up to competition, and PC did that in its one opportunity. We'll see if the Friars can do so a couple more times this week. In this column, I'll use some of the data from the season to posit as to what the Friars are and what we can expect moving forward.

30,000-foot view: Through Tuesday's games -- and all of the figures I will reference are through Tuesday's games -- PC has been the 14th best team in the Big East. I've come to this figure by comparing how Providence -- and other Big East teams -- has done against its competition relative to how an average NCAA Division I team would do (using Kenpom.com's team ratings to determine the strength of competition).

So far this season, the Friars are just 1.8 points per 100 possessions better than an average D-1 team, a figured that dropped from 8.0 due to the performance -- can we call that a performance? -- against the Jaguars. Providence's offense and defense each rank 13th in the conference. The offense was ahead of the defense for the first two games, but that's reversed the last two.

PC's .81 points per possession (PPP) Tuesday was the lowest figure since an 86-62 loss at Marquette last season, which was the only time a Keno Davis squad scored as inefficiently. It was PC's worst offensive performance vs. a non-top-100 team since Nov. 18, 2007, when the Friars scored .698 PPP in a 51-41 loss to Brown.

The Friars' best game of the season was actually its poorest defensive performance (although the first two games were basically a wash with PC's defense about 10 points per 100 possessions worse than average in both games). That win was fueled by superb offense, which combined terrific shooting and good offensive rebounding. Many fans are happy that the Friars ground out a win with defense and pluck on Tuesday -- better than a loss, for sure -- but it's not clear that this is a defense that is all that improved, and it seems more likely that the offense will carry the Friars to their best performances of the season.

Last three seasons compared to average, through four games and for entire season:

Through Four Games End of Season
Season Off Def Overall Off Def Overall
2008-09 11.2 -2.0 9.2 9.7 2.4 12.1
2009-10 7.9 -1.8 6.1 13.1 -3.5 9.6
2010-11 -4.2 11.3 7.1 6.3 1.4 7.6
2011-12 2.7 -0.9 1.8 ? ? ?

(It's hard to remember that PC's defense in the first four games of last season actually looked pretty good whereas the offense was quite poor. The defense was actually at a +5 or so -- a monumental achievement for a Davis-coached team -- through the tough loss to Pittsburgh in January. Things unraveled starting with the subsequent road trip and never recovered.)

The good news is this chart shows that offense and defense haven't stabilized after four games. The bad news is that the overall numbers appear relatively stable. The biggest improvement was from the 2009-10 squad, which jumped 3.5 points per 100 possessions. This is still a small sample of seasons, so it doesn't mean that PC can't improve by a lot more than 3.5 points (and we'll talk about that more in a bit), but it does show that four games can tell us something.

But what can four games really tell us? The problem with statistical analysis early in a season is that good analysis requires a lot of data to validate it, and we just don't have it yet. Small samples can skew our perspective, and that's especially the case with this year's Providence team because of the fluidity of the roster.

Kadeem Batts, Kiwi Gardner, Daquan Brown and (dare I say?) Ricardo Ledo are four key pieces who have varying chances of joining the squad by season's end. Even if it's just Batts who rejoins in a few weeks, that's an important player who can diminish the significance of what's happened on the floor so far. This is a reason why four games may not tell us as much about how this Friars squad will play in February.

From way downtown, nope: That said, there are a few things to note. First is the lack of 3-point attempts. Only two Division I clubs (out of 345) have attempted fewer long-range shots as a proportion of total attempts. Two players -- Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton -- have made 13 of the team's 16 3-pointers and attempted 29 of the 40. As a comparison, the two teams Providence will play in South Padre Island have shot 95 (Iowa State) and 87 (Northern Iowa) in the same number of games. His history doesn't show us that avoiding threes is an Ed Cooley coaching trait but simply a commonsense strategy based on a dearth of shooters.

Who will defend the rim? Most of us know that this squad has enough fatal flaws to suffer multiple deaths, but one area that hasn't been exposed yet -- and is sure to -- is interior defense. Thanks mostly to poor opposition, PC has held opponents to 42.7 percent 2-point shooting (77th in the nation) so far this season, this despite ranking just 190th in shot-block rate (those two figures tend to be correlated). PC's two best shot-blockers this season have been Bilal Dixon (4.0 percent) and Ron Giplaye (4.2), two players whose playing time has dwindled and who are rarely on the floor when it matters.

The lineup PC put out in the final minutes against Southern did not feature a single player who blocks even one percent of opponents' two-pointers when they're on the floor. We know the reasons why Cooley is going with the lineup that he's chosen. He has a backcourt full of scorers, a wing in Gerard Coleman who rebounds well and not many offensive options up front. Therefore, he has Henton at the 4, because he is able to rebound well enough and add some scoring. At the 5, he's chosen Lee Goldsbrough to be the crunch-time option. That leaves PC without any length up front. I would personally give Dixon and his better scoring ability, defensive rebounding and shot-blocking more of an opportunity rather than Goldsbrough and the latter's fundamental, few-mistake play, but it hasn't burned Cooley yet. It may soon. (Side note: Batts is not a shot-blocker and wouldn't ameliorate this.)

The Council of Vincent: Some ScoutFriars.com frequenters have picked out junior point guard Vincent Council as a player who is 1) not performing well and 2) drawing Cooley's ire. In some ways, Council is not performing well. His shooting slump from last season has carried over into this season, and perhaps he will never be an effective shooter. Nonetheless, he'll surely be better than the 36.6 eFG and 42.7 true shooting percentages he currently has. Both of those figures are the worst on the team for any player who has attempted more than one shot.

If the shooting is bad -- and it is -- the rest of Council's game has been fine. His assist rate is about 50 percent higher than it was during his much bandied "pass-first" freshman season, and his turnover rate continues to get better. Meanwhile, he's being asked to take a lot more of the offensive load this season and play virtually every minute.

As good as Bryce Cotton has been this season, he's still primarily a spot-up shooter and a scorer in transition, not a player who can create his own shot. That leaves the onus on those players who can create their own shots -- namely Council and Coleman -- to take on most of the offensive burden. Perhaps the return of Batts will ease the burden and lead to improved shooting numbers, but the Friars need Council to begin to shoot better starting this weekend.

The depth of Providence's lack: The Friars are not deep. This is not news . Still, the top five minute-earners -- in order, Cotton, Council, Henton, Coleman, Goldsbrough -- are soaking up 80 percent of all minutes so far this season. Only 11 teams in the country last season got fewer minutes from their benches (counting Coleman as a starter as he plays starter's minutes) than PC has so far. There are some interesting names on that list though, as five of the 11 made the NCAA Tournament -- Ohio State, Michigan, Morehead State, Penn State and Xavier. Kentucky made the Final Four with a bench about as deep as Providence's.

So, the good news is that what PC has done is not unprecedented -- though still relatively extreme -- and that it does not preclude success. Also, help is on the way in the form of Batts and, it seems, Brown.

Previewing the SPI Invitational: Providence puts its perfect record on the line against Iowa State on Friday and Northern Iowa on Saturday. Neither is a team the Friars should take lightly even if neither has had an impressive set of results so far this season. In fact, I'd put PC as an underdog in both games.

Let's start with Iowa State. The Cyclones are under second-year coach Fred Hoiberg, and they are led by a terrific offense, one that ranks second in the Big 12 to date (only Missouri's has been stronger relative to competition). In all but the loss to Drake, ISU scored at least 1.2 PPP and did so behind tremendous shooting. Iowa State is currently fifth in the nation in eFG (60.2 percent) thanks to a 15th rank in 3-point shooting (45.3 percent).

The Cyclones have four players who have attempted more 3-pointers than any Friars. Michigan State transfer Chris Allen (7-for-24, 29 percent) has the most attempts but has struggled. He did shoot 39.8 percent for the Final Four Spartans two seasons ago. Tyrus McGee is a remarkable 12-for-17 (71 percent) to go along with Chris Babb (13-for-23, 60 percent) and Scott Christopherson (6-for-18, 33 percent).

Those are four of Iowa State's top six players, but the Cyclones' best player hasn't taken a 3-pointer all season, and that's Royce White. The 6-foot-8, 270-pound Minnesota transfer really carries the load inside, as he's been about as important to Iowa State's offense as Marshon Brooks was to PC last season. He's a talented interior scorer and is likely a better offensive and defensive rebounder than anyone on the Friars. If Cooley was going to give Dixon some run, this would be the guy to do it against.

Iowa State's defense has been pretty terrible. Allowing 1.19 PPP to Northern Colorado on Tuesday was simply the latest example. ISU's interior defense has been quite poor, permitting 55.1 percent on 2-point attempts. Like PC, the Cyclones don't have a shot-blocking presence -- the one thing White doesn't provide inside -- and ISU doesn't force many turnovers either. Council and Coleman should look to go inside to score and set up teammates.

From the mostly offense Iowa State, PC will then play the mostly defense UNI Panthers. Just as ISU had the second best offense in the Big 12 to date, UNI has the second best defense in the Missouri Valley. They held solid Old Dominion and St. Mary's clubs to just .72 and .89 PPP respectively. Only Northern Colorado was able to break a point per possession. UNI's defense has been built around aggressively forcing turnovers -- it's ninth in the nation in turnovers forced. Three UNI players have steal rates of at least five percent, better than anyone on PC (the Friars are led by Henton at 3.6 percent). Six-foot-9 Jake Koch (5.3) is the most aggressive, but Johnny Moran (5.0) and 6-foot-8 Sean Tuttle (5.0) also are quite the thieves.

Offensively, things are less rosy for Northern Iowa, which doesn't hit the offensive glass -- good news for PC -- and doesn't get to the line very much. Six-footer Anthony James is the go-to option as he has a usage rate of 28.7 (a bit higher than Council's 27.7, but lower than Coleman's 30.3). Like Council, James has been ineffective as a shooter only moreso with just a 35.3 eFG (1-for-13 on threes), and he doesn't provide the distribution of Council. Moran (9-for-23, 39 percent), Koch (6-for-13, 46 percent) and Marc Sonnen (5-for-12, 42 percent) are able 3-point shooters. UNI doesn't have much of an inside game. Koch, Tuttle and James are the most likely players to score inside, but the Panthers shoot 43 percent of their shots from outside compared to 18.8 percent by PC.

UNI has been the slightly better team so far this season, but Iowa State is still integrating a couple of key transfers. Both squads have been better overall than the Friars, so these will be real tests. It's unlikely that PC returns to Rhode Island undefeated.


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