Don’t look now, Friar fans, but Providence now has its first losing streak of the 2015-16 season. The loss to Nova follows the unexpected 77-70 loss to DePaul on Tuesday night and now a game at Marquette looms, at a place where the Friars haven’t won, in Ed Cooley’s words, “in forever.”
True, Ben Bentil went down with an ankle injury in the DePaul loss halfway through the first half. Also true is the fact that PC was being outplayed before his injury. That he returned against Villanova and played at less than 100 percent provides a bit of an excuse; however Nova played without Daniel Ochefu (concussion) and almost blew the Friars out of the gym. In fact, the Cats now have been without Ochefu for three games – and have won all three.
That’s because Jay Wright has been able to build a true program at Nova, the kind that Cooley hopes to emulate at PC. Villanova has talent spread throughout its four classes and has the luxury of not needing players to emerge until their junior seasons, if necessary. Consistent recruiting efforts have given the Wildcats a solid talent foundation and have made the school the preeminent team in the “new” Big East.
The Friars gave themselves little chance to win this game. So many things went wrong that it’s difficult to list them, but once again, PC wasted a sold-out, electric crowd that was just itching to explode. As in the Xavier game, PC got jumped right from the start, as Nova blew out to a 10-0 lead two minutes into the game. Bentil subbed in at this point but was clearly limited in his movement and jumping ability. By the 8-minute media timeout, the Friars trailed 25-10 and had missed shot after shot, coupled with untimely turnovers.
That lead extended to 29-10 on a Jalen Brunson jumper before two straight Kris Dunn runouts for layups, the second off a steal, woke the huge crowd. Ryan Arcidiacono buried a jumper with 4:40 left to make it 31-14 and those would be Nova’s last points of the half, but PC scored it’s final points of the half on a Jalen Lindsey three with 2:40 to play and squandered further opportunities to cut into the lead, trailing 31-19 at the half.
Villanova maintained it’s double-digit lead for the first two-thirds of the second half, leading 56-41 with 7:49 to play after a short Josh Hart jumper. Only then did PC catch fire and make a game of it. After shooting miserably throughout the game, three consecutive three-pointers – by Rodney Bullock, Bentil and Ryan Fazekas closed the gap to 56-50 in a quick minute and a half. Another three by Fazekas cut the lead to 5 but Kris Jenkins answered with his own three.
After two free throws by Arcidiacono, Bentil nailed another three and the Friars trailed by six, 63-57. After Arcidiacono missed a jumper, Fazekas corralled the rebound and with a chance to cut the lead to 3, Bentil missed long on a three-pointer. With 1:43 left, Arcidiacono hit a dagger three and PC was forced to foul down the stretch, sealing Nova’s win.
Although slowed by his ankle injury, Bentil played well in the second half, scoring 18 of his game-high 20 points. Jay Wright was gracious in his comments, saying, "We're going to talk about a lot of great things we did, but we're not dismissing the fact their best player and leading scorer was not at 100 percent. But that's basketball.” He didn’t mention the fact that he was also without Ochefu.
Easing that loss was the fact that junior Darryl Reynolds came out and scored a career-high 19 points on 9-10 shooting and also had 10 rebounds. Jenkins had 10 points and 10 boards and Hart scored 14 points on 7-13 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds, 7 offensive. Villanova’s offensive boardwork kept possessions alive and led to a 13-4 advantage in second chance points. Hart was particularly effective. Arcidiacono contributed 16 points and Brunson 9 in an extremely balanced offensive attack.
For the friars, where to begin? Once again, PC put itself in a deep hole with a slow start. Once again, the Friars shot poorly, hitting 23 percent in the first half, and only a late hot streak enabled them to make a game of it. For the second straight game, Providence got annihilated on the boards, 46-29, and it wasn’t just because Bentil was hobbled. The whole team has moved away from the gang-rebounding approach that brought it success. The smallest man on the floor, Kyron Cartwright, led PC in rebounding, with 6.
The Friars are simply a team in flux right now. “I’m worried about our team psyche right now,” said Cooley. He’s right – confidence is a fragile thing. More often than not, the lid has been on the basket, from both long range and in close. Numbers don’t lie, 24 games in, and 11 games into the Big East schedule, this is not a good shooting team. But that can be overcome if everything else is clicking and it isn’t.
In the last 9 games, PC is now 4-5. The loss to Nova was the team’s 4th at home in the Big East league season. That’s a peculiar number for any team in the Top 25. The Friars finally lost on the road to DePaul and face 3 of the next 4 games on the road. That's a bad trend. Typically, PC teams under Ed Cooley get better as the season progresses. Now, we're in February and it's looking as though the Friars peaked against UMass back in December.
To make matters worse, All-American Kris Dunn is not, and has not, played well. Against Nova, Dunn scored 11 points on 4-15 shooting, had only 3 assists, was 0-3 from three and 3-6 from the free throw line, missing both attempts at a point where PC was charging. More disturbingly, he had 6 turnovers and forced several passes into crowds. After controlling his turnovers in the non-conference schedule, Dunn has seen his turnovers creep back up in league play. In 11 Big East games, the presumptive league player of the year has 68 assists and 47 turnovers. “Kris is playing like he has a lot of pressure on him,” said Cooley. “He’s not playing like basketball is a joy for him.”
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And now, the Friars face Marquette on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Wisconsin, in their personal house of horrors. PC is 0-9 lifetime at Marquette and has the added pressure of trying to prevent this losing streak from reaching 3 in a row. Some serious psyche-healing lies ahead for coaches and players alike before they take the court on Wednesday night.