Defense: For me, the best place to start when evaluating a team in the preseason is to see what its baseline should be -- how it finished last season. In my research, I discovered a couple surprising things -- or at least surprising considering popular perception. Despite slowing to ninth in the conference in pace of play, Providence still allowed at least 70 points to 13 of 19 Big East opponents (including the conference tournament). In fact, relative to league average, Providence's defense was worse than any Keno Davis team, but its offense was better than any of Davis'.
Offense and defense relative to Big East league averages since 2008-09
|Season||OffEff||DefEff||LeagueAvg||Off +/-||Def +/-||EffMargin|
Compared to league average, last year's Friars were actually a lot like the Greedy/Curry/Brooks Friars from two years ago. They just did it at a much slower pace and in a more defensive league.
Even though the Friars improved on the defensive glass and in defensive field-goal percentage -- perpetual weaknesses of Davis' teams -- the 2011-12 team gave that back by forcing far fewer turnovers. PC went from middle of the pack in forcing turnovers two years ago to last in 2011-12.
It's not uncommon to be a great defense that doesn't force turnovers -- Wisconsin, Michigan State, Kansas, even Kentucky last season -- hardly forced turnovers and had terrific defenses. The difference is that those teams didn't take risks to force turnovers on defense because they were able to defend the rim. Those four were in the top six nationally in field-goal defense. Coach Ed Cooley's team last year didn't force turnovers but didn't have any rim-defenders. In fact, the last time Providence finished better than 13th in the Big East in field-goal defense was Tim Welsh's last season (also Charles Burch's last season. Coincidence? Yes).
PC's Big East ranks in four key defensive factors since 2007-08
So, last year's team displayed the program's best field-goal defense since 2007-08 and best defensive rebounding since 2006-07. That's a good thing, despite how low the standard has been. Still, PC was terrible on defense, and that's a bad thing. I'll take the baby steps, because Cooley is focusing on the most important aspects of good defending. If you're going to build a defense, it should be built around field-goal defense (.78 correlation to defensive efficiency) and defensive rebounding (.43) rather than turnovers forced (.28). One can argue that Cooley laid the groundwork for how an effective defense should work but simply didn't have the personnel to pull it off.
Last year's poor defense may have been affected by a short bench. It's unwise to expend energy and risk fouls going for steals when you're needed on the floor for 36 minutes or more. Council saw his steals rate drop by about 25 percent, and replacing steals maven Duke Mondy with Bryce Cotton was a boon to the offense but didn't do much for the defense. Moreover, though Brooks was not a good defender, he did provide a lot more steals than Henton was able to. Only eight of 345 Division I teams got fewer minutes from their benches than Providence did last season.
In the end, no matter how good coaching may be, defense is perhaps more dependent on personnel than even offense is. Without sufficient length and depth, last year's team was never going to be good on defense, and it's a state that likely won't improve significantly until Carson Desrosiers can help give Providence true size next season.
In the end, though there may have been defensive progress last season, it was more of a case of two steps forward and 1 ½ back. PC held Big East opponents to less than a point per possession in five of 19 league games -- including both times vs. Georgetown. After entering Big East play on a roll of six such performances, there was hope of defensive improvement, but Keno's last team held Big East opponents under a point per possession four times. His legendarily terrible second team did so three times but not once after its final win of the season vs. UConn on Jan. 27, 2010.
Offense: Last year's offense was superficially ugly but surprisingly effective albeit inconsistent. The ball was in the hands of Council most of the time, and though it got a little stagnant, having the orange in possession of the conference's top creator was wise.
Only two Big East players were responsible for more of his team's possessions when on the floor than Council -- Louisville's Russ Smith and Georgetown's Henry Sims. Neither of those players were on the floor for even 70 percent of his teams possessions, though, and Council was present for 90 percent (this despite being benched at Syracuse) of all possible minutes. No player in the league was asked to do more on offense than Council, and he was not crushed by the burden.
His 98.2 offensive rating (per Kenpom.com) is not great or even good, but considering his combination of minutes and workload, it was more than good enough really. Being willing and able to carry that load enabled Henton and Cotton to be highly effective second and third options (along with Gerard Coleman, who was more involved than either of the others but less effective). Cotton is primarily a 3-point weapon, but he was also surprisingly accurate, considering his (generously listed) 6-foot-1 height, on 2-pointers at 46 percent. Henton was also able to maintain a high efficiency with a 51.4 eFG thanks to his talent but also to Council's -- and to a lesser extent Coleman's -- willingness to bear a greater offensive burden.
The offense's effectiveness was not primarily attributable to the good shooting of Cotton and Henton though. Providence was still just the 13th best shooting team in the league (same as in Davis' last year), but the Friars were in the top five in the league in limiting turnovers, getting on the offensive glass and getting to the foul line. Providence had similar strengths and weaknesses in Davis' last year, and Cooley didn't have enough pieces to substantially change those relative traits.
None of the team's four big minutes men were turnover-prone. Turnovers were a problem earlier in the year, with PC turning it over in more than one in five possessions in five of its first six Big East games (culminating in turnovers on 31.7 percent of possessions in the game Council sat out), but the Friars never crossed the 20 percent threshold (the typical national average) in any game the rest of the season. Council's sure-handedness as he dominated the ball ensured PC was one of the league's best in taking care of it.
It might be surprising to see that PC's best trait may have been its offensive rebounding (PC was fourth in the Big East in both preventing turnovers and hitting the offensive glass). The Friars grabbed 36.4 percent of its own misses in conference play (the national average was 32.1), good for fourth in the league. Henton was solid here, though Ron Giplaye, Brice Kofane and Kadeem Batts were the team's strongest offensive rebounders (by rate). Coleman was also sneakily good on the offensive glass. For a team that, especially on two-pointers, couldn't shoot straight (an awful 42.8 percent on twos in conference play), strong offensive rebounding was the best way to compensate.
Finally, there's getting to the line. Coleman was the team's best here (barring Bilal Dixon in less playing time), taking about one free throw for every two 2-point attempts. Batts ran a close third, and his 71.4 percent mark from the line makes him a potentially effective low-post threat. Dixon and Coleman are gone now, so this could be an area of regression.
A brief aside on PC's distribution of shots last season: The Friars shot almost as well in league play on 3-pointers 36.6 percent as on 2-pointers 42.8 percent. When you consider the extra value of the long shot, PC scored about a quarter of a point more on each 3-point attempt than on each 2-point attempt. The weird thing is, despite having the league's second best 3-point shooting and worst 2-point shooting, only one Big East team (St. John's, which shot just 29.5 percent) took a smaller portion of its field-goal attempts from deep. The Friars would have likely shot a worse percentage had they taken more 3-pointers, but I'd argue that -- despite only having two reliable shooters from deep -- this offense could have bore more 3-pointers, particularly when so many interior shots were caroming away. A rebuttal to my argument would be that part of PC's ability to get so many offensive rebounds and so many free throws was due to getting the ball in the paint so much -- 3-point-shooting teams typically take fewer free throws and have a tougher time getting offensive rebounds. So there's a trade-off that I'm sure Cooley weighed.
It all added up to PC being the sixth best offense in the Big East in conference play. Despite just two decent shooters, almost nothing from non-Hentons at forward and the worst 2-point offense in the conference, the Friars had their highest finish offensively since the Big East expanded to 16 teams. With the top three offensive players back and several key additions, the Friars should be at least as strong on offense in Big East play.