The time has come.
Ever since the schedule was released back in September, Friar fans have been looking ahead to a stretch of Big East games in mid- to- late January that looked daunting. Well, that stretch is here.
In the next two weeks, Providence will take on 23rd-ranked Butler at home on Tuesday, visit 6th-ranked Villanova on Saturday, welcome 7th-ranked Xavier to the Dunk on Tuesday the 26th and close the month with a trip to Georgetown on the 30th. A similar four game stretch awaits the good guys in February, beginning with a home date with Villanova on Saturday the 6th, a trip to PC’s own house of horrors at Marquette on the 10th, a home tip against Georgetown on the 13th and a road trip to Xavier on the 17th. The two 4 game sequences will determine how high these Friars fly in the Big East this year.
When PC completed it’s non-conference portion of the schedule with an impressive 12-1 mark, and then scored a strong road win in the Big East opener at Butler, the schedule seemed to suggest that a 17-1 record heading into the first of the two 4 game stretches would be difficult but not out of the question. Providence put in it’s best overall performance of the season in its final out of conference game at Massachusetts, and subsequently rose to 8th in the country after the Butler win.
But with losses in two of the last three games, and both of the losses at home, PC will enter the tough stretch at 15-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big East. An argument can certainly be made that PC lost to two mid-tier Big East teams in Marquette and Seton Hall and that these were games that, being at home, most fans had checked off in the win column. Losing games like that leads to fan unrest, without question.
More concerning, though, is how Providence is playing. Ed Cooley, after the 81-72 Seton Hall loss, had a number of interesting comments regarding how games play out. He said, “It’s not the opponent. It’s us. Basketball players and teams have to look in the mirror. It’s not about who we play. It’s about worrying how we play.”
He’s right. Regardless of how Marquette or Seton Hall played, even marginally better performances by the Friars likely would have resulted in wins. What’s concerning is that this turn in fortunes has not stemmed from a recent short-term drought. You can go all the way back to New Year’s Eve to witness the seeds of the current Friar funk. That funk can be broken down into several categories, starting with…
Whether at home or on the road, PC has started games slowly in that time. In four out of the five Big East games, PC has trailed at halftime and has trailed by double digits in the first half, creating the need for massive second half comebacks. Against Seton Hall, PC fell behind by 38-28 at the half. Against Butler, PC trailed 36-25 at the half, and how did the Friars ultimately prevail? It took a second half three-point barrage by Rodney Bullock to put PC over the top. Which brings us to…
Whether at home or on the road, PC has shot poorly in Big East play. Against Seton Hall, the Friars shot 30 percent for the game, and 20 percent (5-25) for three-pointers. Take away Junior Lomomba’s 3-5, and the rest of the team combined to go 2-20. At Creighton was worse. PC shot 29 percent from the floor and 4-24 from three. For the five Big East games played, the Friars are shooting 37 percent from the field and 29 percent from three.
And it’s not limited to any one player. Other than Kris Dunn (.465), PC’s shooting percentages look anemic over the five game stretch. Ben Bentil (.435), Rodney Bullock (.413), Kyron Cartwright (.400), Drew Edwards (.263) and Jalen Lindsey (.233) all, with the exception of Cartwright, are shooting worse percentages than projected. Three point shooting is even more miserable. Lindsey is at .167, Edwards at .286, Bentil at .158. Only Dunn, Bullock and Lomomba have hit at reasonable rates.
So is this a bad shooting team? Or is this a team that’s just going through a bad stretch? Certainly, the loss of Ryan Fazekas to mono and his yet-to-return to form performances haven’t helped there. But the flow on offense and ball movement have been noticeably absent as well. No longer are the Friars piling up impressive assist-to-made basket numbers as they were earlier in the season. One sure indicator of how well the offense is performing is to look at Kris Dunn’s assist totals. Against Creighton, he had 3. Against Seton Hall, he had 2. Which brings us to…
There is a tremendous amount of pressure on Kris Dunn to be really good each and every game. He wasn’t against Seton Hall. His turnovers, along with the team's, have crept back up in the league games. So far, Dunn has 27 assists and 23 turnovers in the 5 games. Earlier in the year, Dunn and Bentil played an effective two-man game. Rodney Bullock, the number three guy in PC’s Big Three, has faded noticeably since the Butler game. He was scoreless against Creighton and really struggled against the Pirates, to the point that Cooley inserted Tom PLanek into his spot in the second half starting lineup in an effort to wake him up.
Through 51 games in his career and 18 so far this season, Jalen Lindsey has remained an offensive enigma. Fans keep waiting for an offensive explosion but, with few exceptions, one has yet to come. Drew Edwards has flashed potential but is experiencing freshman ups and downs and is far more consistent defensively right now. Big East coaches have scouted Providence now and are game-planning to take Bentil away. Although he had 21 points against the Hall, most of that damage came from the free-throw line. From the floor, Bentil was just 4-15. Which brings us to…
Along with their other offensive woes, Providence has not been a particularly good free throw shooting team. Ben Bentil has, single-handedly, kept PC’s overall numbers respectable, but if you take Bentil’s contribution away, the situation looks far bleaker. Bentil was 12-13 against Seton Hall; the rest of the team 11-18, but that included two big misses by Lomomba, with PC down 64-58 with 6:46 left. What could have become a 6-point game instead went back to ten. Against Marquette, Bentil was 10-10; the rest of the team 4-8, including several front-end misses. As a team, PC is at 71 percent; take away Bentil and the team drops to 63 percent. But enough about the offensive woes…
PC’s lack of size is finally betraying them defensively and on the glass. Right from the get-go, Seton Hall dominated the boards, outrebounding the Friars, 50-36, while keeping many possessions alive. Angel Delgado, Michael Nzei and Ismael Sanogo really bothered Bentil and Bullock inside. The perimeter defense really struggled against the Pirates, as Dunn, Lomomba, Edwards and Lindsey had no luck stopping the Hall’s repeated dribble drives by Isaiah Whitehead, Derrick Gordon, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez. Those four lived in the lane and as a result, Seton Hall scored 38 points in the paint.
Most disturbingly, the Hall out-toughed and out-gritted the Friars, two traits that this PC team has been known for. The Friars often seemed tentative and out of sorts, not confident in their probing of the Hall’s defense and out-ganged on the glass. Defensively, the coaches waited too long to get out of man-to-man and into zone, and the dribble drive penetration took advantage of the man defense. Once PC went to zone, the Friars at least semi-slowed down the Pirates and were able to cut into some of the lead, but it was too little, too late.
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So now Providence is at a crossroads. A hungry, eager for revenge and very physical Butler team is first up at 6:30 p.m. at the Dunk on Tuesday. How the team adjusts and navigates the first of the upcoming four-game sequence will begin to reveal who this Friar team really is.