A fourth straight loss has put the Friars' season at a tipping point. Since beating Louisville on January 10, the Friars played erratically at Syracuse and lost, played without the requisite desire and lost a winnable game at home against Marquette and were soundly beaten by a previously league-winless team in Pittsburgh. And now Providence sits alone in last place in the Big East after coming up short against the Bulls.
The pundits have termed this a down year for the Big East, and they have a point, to a certain extent. Only Syracuse, at this point, looks to be a threat to grab a slot in the top two seeds of the NCAA Tournament.
Part of the thought process is that traditional powers in the league seem to be down this year. After this weekend's games, Pittsburgh is 2-7 in the league, Louisville is 4-4, Villanova is 3-7 and defending national champion Connecticut, with a loss to Notre Dame, dropped to 4-4. So, the teams that everyone usually thinks will dominate have fallen off.
That opens opportunities. Schools traditionally thought of as doormats have seized the opportunity and are winning games normally lost. No longer can fans of a school like Providence look to South Florida, Rutgers, Seton Hall or DePaul as games that PC "should" win, especially on the road. These games are now no better than 50-50 games. Rutgers is 4-5, Seton Hall is 4-4, DePaul is 2-6 and then there is South Florida.
The Bulls, with the win over PC, move to 13-9 overall and 6-3 in the Big East, good for 4th place, easily their best start since joining the league. Under Stan Heath, South Florida has done it with tough defense and by slowly building the talent level. Gus Gilchrist seems to always kill the Friars inside, and the guard play of Anthony Collins and Hugh Robertson has improved.
LaDontae Henton kept Providence in the game in the first half, scoring 24 points, on his way to a career high and PC freshman game record of 33 points. A back and forth first half saw the Bulls break quickly with a 12-7 lead, before PC went on a 23-17 run that gave the Friars a 30-29 edge on a Henton three point play. PC extended their lead to 36-29 with four minutes left on a Bryce Cotton three before South Florida battled back to forge a 39-all halftime knot.
Vincent Council scored five points early in the second half as PC grabbed a 46-41 lead and the Friars still led 51-45, when the Bulls erupted for a 16-1 run to grab a 63-54 lead. A Robertson three made it 69-60, before a 15-9 run by the Friars trimmed the lead to 78-75. With the Bulls leading 80-78, Victor Rudd hit one free throw with five seconds left to ice the win.
Missed opportunities have haunted the Friars and Ed Cooley. Seton Hall was winnable, Marquette was winnable, the first Syracuse game was winnable. None have been wins. "We have had multiple opportunities to win games," Cooley said. "Traditionally in this league, a team like ours in the bottom of the standings would be in trouble winning at all. We're there. But I'm telling our kids "You've got to buckle up and go get them.'"
And so comes the tipping point. At a certain stage in any team's season, things can go either way. A spiral downward is just as likely as a surge forward. As losses pile up, reversing the trend can be difficult, and staying on the positive side of .500 for the season gets tougher. Certainly, 1-8 over the first half of the league season is no one's idea of a good time.
Next up is yet another 50-50 game. Tuesday night at the Dunk sees the Rutgers Scarlet Knights visit. Rutgers is 12-10 overall also, but 4-5 in the league and Mike Rice has done a nice job bringing some talent in. They are no longer a slam dunk for opponents, but with the game at home, PC needs to take advantage. Keeping an eye on the intensity and desire of the Friars will be a good guide as to which way the tipping point will tip over the remainder of the season.
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