The Big East coaches picked Providence fifth in the preseason poll, which most people thought was fair. Many ScoutFriars board members had PC in the range of an NCAA eighth seed to an NIT team. The first inkling that we could be looking at a special season came in Anaheim, where the Friars beat a potential NCAA team in Evansville, a top ten team in Arizona, and had a decent shot to beat Michigan State until Kris Dunn picked up his fourth foul and a three pointer by Junior Lomomba was waved off.
Now that an undefeated December is complete, how far can Providence go this year? If things break right, I believe Providence can compete with anyone in the country. While I freely admit to being a Providence homer, this could be the year Providence is playing during the second or third weekend of the NCAAs. To make the case, I looked at the teams that are considered national contenders this year.
Michigan State is at the top of the polls (until Monday), and most experts consider them a legitimate championship contender when at full strength. As mentioned above, we have already demonstrated that we can compete with them on a neutral court. The other major contenders in the Big 10 are Purdue and Maryland. Purdue’s strengths are their size in the frontcourt and their depth. AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas, both seven footers, would be problems for the Friars, but they also have no one to match up with Bentil and especially Dunn. Maryland has a great lineup, and a lot of potential, especially if Diamond Stone continues to play the way he did against Penn State on Tuesday.
The ACC has North Carolina, Virginia, Duke, Miami, and possibly Louisville and/or Florida State. Of these, I think UNC and Miami would be the biggest challenges to us, due to their length and athleticism. Duke will most likely improve, and Virginia’s style of play can frustrate anyone, but our style of play makes us less susceptible to Virginia’s defense than Villanova, for example.
The Big 12 has three national contenders in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa State. Iowa State has old friend Georges Niang, but I honestly believe that Kris Dunn would completely dominate Monte Morris in a tournament game. Kansas and Oklahoma would both be potentially tough matchups for the Friars. Oklahoma has a national POY candidate in Buddy Hield and a solid supporting cast. Their three point shooting would be a major concern for the Friars. Kansas has great balance and unselfishness, and a nice mix of youth and experience. They regularly play 10-12 guys as part of their rotation, and this has been known to cause problems in the NCAAs when minutes become scarce.
Kentucky always has a lot of talent, but this year’s team has not meshed to the level of the past two teams. Their highly touted freshman, especially Skal Labissiere, have not performed to their expected level. South Carolina is unbeaten but has yet to be tested. I suspect that the Friars could score on them at will. In the Pac-12, Arizona still appears to be the class of the league, and we’ve already seen them. Utah, UCLA, and Colorado (with Josh Fortune) are also contenders there. With SMU ineligible and Gonzaga and Wichita State underperforming thus far, there are no obvious contenders from the other leagues.
The final conference to be examined is the Big East. The top four teams (Providence, Xavier, Butler, and Villanova) have been getting national acclaim, and I believe Seton Hall has the potential to be there with them. Georgetown also has the talent to be playing in March. Villanova carries the burden of their past two March failures, but they showed against Xavier how good they can be. Xavier has been one of the best teams in the country during the non-conference season, but the Villanova game showed how fragile any top team is when they lose a top player, as happened when Edmund Sumner went down. He appears to be OK, but it remains to be seen if he is available for Butler on Saturday. Butler can be a contender if Kellen Dunham gets back on track, but I believe Providence’s defense played a role in his shooting against them.
This leaves Providence. The Friars will enter every game this season with the best player on the court, and most games with the two best players. While this may have also been true last season, the gap between Dunn and the field is much greater now. Dunn in particular has shown an ability to take over close games down the stretch, even when he hasn’t had his ‘A’ game, such as the Illinois, Arizona, and URI games. Another factor is the supporting cast appears to be better this year. Rodney Bullock provides much more on the offensive end than Tyler Harris did, and Jalen Lindsey is developing his defensive and rebounding skills. Ryan Fazekas will hopefully return soon to his form, which is a three point threat that they did not have last year. Coupled with the substantial improvement of Junior Lomomba, the development of Kyron Cartwright, and the emergence of Drew Edwards off the bench, this gives the Friars a solid eight man rotation. Quadree Smith and Ricky Council have shown flashes of future potential, as well. The final factor for the Friars is the continued development of Ed Cooley’s coaching ability. While Friar fans have been conditioned to expect a collapse at the end of close games for the last ten years of this century, that has changed in the past few years, and coach Cooley is a major reason why. This cannot be overlooked in the NCAAs.
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The point of this is that though the Friars could again lose in the first game of the NCAAs, this team has the potential to be playing later into March than any team since 1997.